Fewer “bad boss” types have the capacity to paralyze a team more than a coward – the leader who praises poor performance, avoids difficult issues, and buys loyalty by saying yes to any idea. One executive I worked with was fondly referred to as “the waffle” because he was so easily swayed by anyone who walked into his office. While the nickname was a cruel one, it was the result of suffering on the other side. His inability to take a stand left his team in a constant state of frustration, confused about what decisions were going to be made and why.
While this situation may seem like a unique one, it’s not. In my ten-year longitudinal study of more than 2,700 leaders, I found that more leaders avoided using their power than abusing it out of self-interest. An astounding 60% of our participants struggled with the fact that people ascribed them more power than they believed they possessed, 57% found the decisions they were required to make in their roles more complicated and risky than they had expected, and 61% found that people wanted more of their time than they had available, but felt guilty saying no to them because they didn’t want to appear inaccessible.
Wanting to please others, avoid failure, and evade hard decisions were three weaknesses we identified in leaders commonly associated with cowardice. However, many organizations often excuse these development gaps as harmless habits when, in reality, they can have a detrimental impact on those being led.
That’s why, if you work for a boss who struggles with these issues, ignoring them is not a good option. Doing so can have long-term consequences on your career and courage. Because people naturally tend to acclimate to the culture around them, you risk unconsciously emulating the behaviors of the person in power. If those behaviors are excessively avoidant and accommodating, you are likely to adopt them in some form, perhaps without even realizing it.
Here are 4 things you can do to avoid the fallout from working for a cowardly boss.
Learn, don’t collude
The temptation to mock, gossip about, or take advantage of a cowardly boss can feel irresistible. Giving them belittling nicknames behind their back can turn into sport if your team is irritated or embarrassed about who you work for. The risk here is that someone is always watching. Your participation in such behavior says as much about you as your boss, no matter how many other people are doing it. Instead of colluding, study your boss’s behavior. What makes them fearful? If you were in their shoes, what would you do differently? How do you handle hard choices or conflict today, and what can you learn from them about how to improve? If you suspected your team didn’t respect you, what would you change? Making astute observations of your boss’s behavior and using them to reflect on your choices, current or future, can be a source of powerful development. One day, when you’re a boss, those insights will prove invaluable.
Guard your courage by setting the example
Cowardice comes in many forms — fear of failure, rejection, and conflict, to name a few. Our brains are hardwired to seek harmony and connection, which can intensify such fears. But when you’re a boss, hard tradeoffs, negative feedback, and the occasional visible mistake are an inevitable part of the job. It takes courage to accept this. At the end of the day, we have to trust that our connections with others can survive some turbulence. Just because your boss has lost their ability to risk such turbulence doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. If you find yourself withholding viewpoints in meetings, or avoiding hard decisions because that’s become your team’s norm, these may be signs your courage is waning. Redouble your efforts to respectfully raise dissenting views. Talk openly about difficult decisions to make your hard choices visible to your colleagues. By exercising courage, you can protect and grow it, setting yourself apart while maintaining your integrity. It may feel awkward or unfair to “role model up,” but don’t underestimate the power of a positive example, regardless of which way it’s directed.
Ask for what you need
It’s reasonable to want things like decisiveness, consistency, and clarity from your boss. And when you aren’t getting them, it can be frustrating, as your contributions may feel diminished. As difficult as it might seem, asking your boss for the things you want may be the best way to get them. But it will take courage. I once watched a woman in an organization I consulted with do this masterfully. She said to her boss, “I appreciate how important our satisfaction as a team is to you. I find that I’m much more confident in my job when I feel clear on what’s expected, and where we’re headed. It would really help me if at the end of our meetings we had a crisp recap of what we discussed, what was decided, and the actions we’re each responsible for. I’d be happy to take responsibility for incorporating that into our agenda if you’re OK with it.” The new practice made a sizable dent in the confusion and inconsistency that was frustrating the team.
Acknowledge your own fear of change
Asking for what we need can be difficult when we resent having to ask at all. We privately bemoan, “If they can’t do the job, they shouldn’t be the boss.” Over time, the more normal your boss’ cowardice becomes, the harder it will feel to ask for something different. But once you stop trying, you’ve become a part of the problem, which means you bear some responsibility for your unmet needs. The apprehension you feel is natural — it’s typically born out of the fear that your boss will fail to change and disappoint you. When I work with teams in this scenario, however, I also tend to uncover a second, even deeper fear — that the boss will change, and as a result, the team will have to change with them. If the boss becomes clear and decisive, team members will need to be more accountable. If the boss becomes open to dissenting ideas, team members will have to start offering more of them. Sometimes, to avoid facing our own need to change, we convince ourselves the boss never will. Instead of remaining a justified victim, be honest about what the boss’ change would require of you and lean into the challenge. However difficult the change, it pales in comparison to the longer-term consequence of becoming just like a boss you don’t admire.
Determine how prevalent cowardice is
Sometimes a cowardly boss is an exception, while other times they’re representative of the company’s culture. Knowing which you’re dealing with is important to determine if you want to stay at your organization long-term. If your boss’ cowardice is an anomaly, it’s likely those above them are, at least to some degree, aware of the issue. In this case, you can wait out the company taking action, or you can look for opportunities on other teams where courage and openness are practiced. If cowardice is your company’s norm, however, carefully consider how long you want to stay. Remaining immersed in the culture could have deeper effects that you may not recognize until you’re in a new environment where courage is valued. The sooner you exit, the less detox you’ll have to do.
Every boss has imperfections we must tolerate. But cowardice is a unique shortfall with side effects that have lingering consequences to our reputation and careers. Don’t dismiss your boss’s cowardice as a benign weakness. Leaders who abdicate the power that comes with their role in favor of perceived popularity or harmony can undermine the entire organization’s future, and yours with it.