“Good Boss” Output Versus “Bad Boss” Output

Yes, it’s an n=1 story but I thought it was worth passing along:

Hi Dubner and Levitt,

I was interested by your recent podcast about the value of a good boss [based on this research] and wanted to share with you my own boss story.

I am a software engineer, and used to have a job writing software for scientists. I was hired by Good Boss, and thoroughly enjoyed my job. One year later, Good Boss accepted a position at another institution, and was replaced by Bad Boss. I worked for Bad Boss for another two-and-a-half years before resigning because I couldn’t stand it any longer.

Keep in mind the following occurred at the same institution, the same project, the same grant, the same team, the same office; the single difference was the boss.

In terms of productivity, during the single year I worked for Good Boss, I wrote four software applications and published two papers. During the subsequent two-and-a-half years working for Bad Boss, I wrote two applications and my only publication was a poster session. Software productivity dropped from 4 apps per year to 0.8, and publications dropped from 2 per year to 0.4, if you count a poster as a publication.

In terms of morale, I enjoyed working for Good Boss to the point where I would sometimes voluntarily dabble with work projects on the weekends because they were so interesting. It was the best job I’ve ever had. Working for Bad Boss was so unenjoyable that I eventually resigned a huge salary and great benefits in the middle of a recession—which turned out to be one of the best career moves I’ve made.

Keep up the interesting podcast!


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  1. Mike W says:

    Make that n=2. Plus I’m still having nightmares about Bad Boss (and Bad Boss’ henchman) 13 years later.

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  2. rags says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • anonymous says:

      Two weeks waitressing? That’s it? Well, aren’t you special!

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    • pawnman says:

      Two weeks waitressing after getting a PhD…I hope you left some comments on the “value of college” story.

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    • TexCIS says:

      When you “work for yourself” you are not really your own boss. Your customers/clients are your boss, and you have a LOT of them. You have to do what THEY say, or else they stop being your customers. I’ve been there, in varying kinds of businesses. I like working at a regular job better.

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  3. Troy says:

    There are also cases where the bad boss doesnt necessarily affect productivity, but results in the production of output that is essentially useless.

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  4. AaronS says:

    There is also the long-term effect on a company. The writer of this piece resigned. Not only had his productivity fallen under the Bad Boss, but now that company has lost his services forever.

    To be fair, it might be that even under the Good Boss, as a natural course of matters, productivity might have eventually fallen off. But at least with the Good Boss, this guy would still be with the company, producing services.

    I wonder if Bad Bosses have a temporary boost in output, perhaps due to the troops being in fear of their jobs, etc.? In any case, at some point, this doesn’t matter. Either the people stop living in fear…or they just move on. And then productivity is lost in an even bigger way.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Not all bad bosses are unpleasant or create fear in their employees.

      It reminds me a bit of a school I saw back in the 1980s. There were three teachers in the 7- or 8-year-old classrooms. Two of them had students who liked them about average, and they worked hard and made a lot of progress. The other class absolutely loved their teacher because he gave them popcorn parties every Friday afternoon. He didn’t, unfortunately, actually teach them very much, and his students were consistently some of the worst readers and worst math students in their age group.

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  5. Veli?kovi?::blog says:

    I’m experiencing similar Good Boss Bad Boss situation but on the other side of the World, in Serbia, for last year and a half. During that time my interest, excitement and productivity fell so low that I worked effectively for only 2-3 hours a day, spending rest of the time on the web, educating myself. After being with the firm for 5 years on a position most similar to the role of the CIO I’ve finally decided to leave and move into consulting business to “restart” as entrepreneur. I wanted to reach consentual agreement and leave the “open door” for my employer as I thought it would benefit both sides. Sad but true – it took 3 months just to “arrange” 10 minute meeting and settle on my departure with no interest whatsoever on future collaboration.

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  6. Not this time says:

    The same thing happens when “your” company gets bought out by another that has a different management style. I was (am still) working in a small company and we got bought out by a multi-national company that has a large bureaucratic tradition, and many older employees that want to come over and “show us how its done”. Now we don’t have a bad boss, we have a bad system running us. What they have done is turn our old company from a Kodachrome in to a black-white equivalent. (It is all there, but the “little” things that made us great have been dropped.)

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  7. Bobby Kolev says:

    Don’t mean to start a war here, but has anyone also considered the possibility of simply looking too close at the picture and skipping the details that actually might be at the core of the developments.

    Hypothetically speaking suppose Good Boss was the one who started on a new project, with new ventures and freshly secured capital. It was all fun, new, exciting, plenty of money and time to be spent, just about any result being welcome etc.

    Then, as time passes and nothing of significance develops one starts to get tired.

    Good Boss leaves company because he’s good not only with employees, he’s also an excellent career mover and knows where both value and fun are. I mean aren’t those *really* the good bosses?

    And then Bad Boss is someone who is after results, not enthusiasm; the whole picture of the company could have changed by then, investors getting nervous etc.

    Its not easy to imagine/recall that…if you’ve been software developer…or why not anything else, just for long enough….I guess software development is one of the areas where there’s always been something starting in the past 30 years…so it’s easier to spot than any other developed market.

    Point being…it may not be just Good Boss vs Bad Boss thing.

    It may as well be Good Times vs Bad Times.

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  8. Bobby Kolev says:

    Sorry, what I mean was “I is not too hard to imagine that…” of course.

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  9. Travis says:

    It would be interesting to examine this effect from the OTHER side, I.E. looking at business records, or departmental records year over year and trying to determine if the boss was good or bad. Once having the determination, then going to the employees to try and objectively say whether the boss was good or bad at that point in time.

    Other interesting information would be to what level a bad boss can pollute a company. Can a bad boss at a high level have a trickle down effect, hampering the productivity of workers 2 or 3 levels below them?

    And finally, is there really a way to have an objective measure of how bad a boss is?

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  10. n = 3 says:

    Need more evidence? Stanford professor Bob Sutton is the author of “Good Boss, Bad Boss” and “The No-A**hole Rule.” A recent interesting blog post is :

    11 Books Every Leader Should Read: Updated for 2012

    Daniel Pink interviews Bob Sutton about bosses

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