Surrounded By Bad Bosses and Lazy Employees: Interview with Thomas Erikson

Thomas Erikson, bestselling author and behavioral expert, shares his insights and advice on how to deal with all the bad bosses and lazy employees in the workplace.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #671
The Quick And Dirty

Dealing effectively with bad bosses and lazy employees can be as simple as...

  1. Understanding why there is perceived badness and laziness
  2. Learning to practice small actions
  3. Understanding the four personality types at work
  4. Taking action to allow styles to complement each other

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Work would be a breeze…if not for all the bad bosses and lazy employees out there. Right?
But in all seriousness, with so many hundreds (millions?) of books out there on leadership and performance, how is it possible that so many bad bosses and lazy employees continue to exist?
I had the opportunity to pose this very question to behavioral expert and bestselling author Thomas Erikson as we discussed his latest book Surrounded By Bad Bosses (and Lazy Employees); How to Stop Struggling, Start Succeeding, and Deal With Idiots at Work.
For more than 15 years, Erikson has been traveling all over Europe, delivering lectures and seminars to executives and managers at a wide range of companies including IKEA, Coca Cola, Microsoft, Volvo and more.  
Listen to the full conversation on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or just click the audio player above.

With so many books out there on leadership, how are there still so many bad bosses out there?

Erikson listed a number of reasons which made perfect sense. A couple that stood out for me were:

1. Bosses aren’t mind-readers

Erikson described various conversations in which people come to him frustrated by a boss’s behavior or a style of leadership that just feels scratchy.  
“Some people come to me and say, ‘my boss is so bad and he doesn't know what I want.’ And then I ask, ‘have you told him or her? No. Okay, there you go.’ 
It may sound oversimplified, but the truth is that too many people just assume bosses should know what we want and how we want to be communicated to or managed or recognized. But bosses aren’t superhuman. They aren’t mind readers. So one strategy for improving your experience with your boss? Simply tell them what you’re looking for.

2. Leadership isn’t intuitive

Many people seem to believe that “leadership should be intuitive… [but] just, that's just wrong. That's a myth. Some people have good natural skills when it comes to communication, [and] leadership is basically a communication process.”  But even with skills and capabilities, the act of leadership still needs to be learned over time and with practice.

Speaking of practice… what skills should we practice if we want to be better leaders?

There are many for sure. But here are some of the most critical, according to Erikson:
Practice listening – hearing without feeling the need to add or debate.
Practice paying attention – challenge yourself to absorb focus, and process.
Delegate – begin building trust in members of your team through strategic delegation of key activities that align to their strengths and interests.
Give feedback – this is a crucial leadership skill that may feel uncomfortable, and yet it is one of the greatest drivers of growth and development.

Let’s talk about different styles of leadership

Oftentimes, when a boss seems “bad” or an employee “lazy,” the real issue isn’t badness or laziness, but rather a simple mismatch—or misunderstanding—of personality types and styles.
One of the keys to a successful leadership/follower relationship is having each in the dynamic understand the natural style of the other. This helps us both flex our own natural style, while also better understanding where the other may be coming from (instead of just assuming the worst).
So here are the four main personality styles you’ll find in the workplace, according to Erikson (and note, you may have elements of each of these—they are simply categories which can sometimes be helpful in understanding a dysfunctional dynamic):
The “Red” personality shows up as direct, to the point, goal-oriented, and high-achieving. They tend to be task-oriented, they make quick decisions, and they love a good challenge. 
When something needs to get done quickly and efficiently—especially something complex or challenging—a red leader is well-suited to the task.
Sounds great! But what’s the downside? Well, red leaders aren’t always the most naturally inclusive. When there’s a need to explore ideas, to bring in diverse points of view, or to deliver a message in a soft way… red leaders aren’t always well-received.
The “Yellow” personality is the eternal optimist. They love to answer questions, to share stories, to be the one to cheer you up. They trade on feeling and instinct more than data and reason.
Yellows are great at building community, at closing sales, and at motivating others. But they’re not the strongest when it comes to rolling up their sleeves and getting the hard work done. So use a yellow in the right moments!
The “Green” personality is both the most commonly found, and the most balanced of the personality types. They tend to be humble, collaborative, and diplomatic.
Greens will keep the work on track, but won’t be the big innovators or direction-shifters. They strive for balance, for comfort, and minimizing complexity. So tap into a Green when you need to keep something in a steady state—but look elsewhere for explosive ideas and big bursts of creativity.
The “Blue” personality likes to analyze, assess, classify and evaluate. They have the answers and the data to prove it. They’re hyper-organized and always have a plan.
Blues are great when you need the “right” answer, even if it’s not necessarily the one you wanted to hear. If you need a Blue to change course, you’re going to need a clear, compelling, fact-based reason as to why. A Blue is your best bet when you need a reality check, but not necessarily a dose of motivation.
As you can see none of these personality types is all good or all bad. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. And one of the keys to a successful workplace is figuring out how to mesh your style with someone else's.
Two Reds together may get it all done. But a Red boss may come off as aggressive and disrespectful to a Yellow who wants to have a conversation before the decision is made.

So, how can we be constructive?

• “[Know] your message is going to be filtered through layers…People see what they see and they hear what they hear…" Try saying “Could you please repeat to me what you heard me say?’ And you will never hear the same thing [you believe you said]."
• Understand yourself. Ask others around you which of these 4 types is most like you. And pay attention to both the positive and negative experiences you have with communication. Find small spots in which to tweak.
• Pay attention to other people as well. Before you assume the worst, ask yourself—where might they be coming from, and how can I interpret that interaction more positively? Was that comment really aggressive, or is this person just so focused on the result that they overlooked the opportunity to ask for my input?
• Reach out. Just get more practice communicating.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Thomas Erikson. Pick up his book, Surrounded By Bad Bosses (and Lazy Employees); How to Stop Struggling, Start Succeeding, and Deal With Idiots at Work, to learn more about your own style at work, and the styles of those around you.
Imagine how much badness and laziness your quest for insight stands to extinguish!

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.