What You Can Learn From Your Terrible Boss

Who’s the best boss you ever had, the person you loved working for the most? What qualities did they have that made you want to work for them? I ask this question a lot in my therapy practice. A lot of times I get surprised or confused looks from my clients when I bring this up. To be fair, it’s a pretty weird question for a therapy session, and I usually ask it when my clients and I aren’t talking about anything even close to work.

    Something that comes up in therapy very frequently is the idea of motivation. I hear the phrase, “I have no motivation to do anything” from nearly every client I have ever seen. And I completely get it— as someone who has struggled off and on with depression and untreated ADHD for most of my life, I am very familiar with that feeling of, “I want to do it, I know I should do it, I would feel better after doing it, I just can’t.” Not only is it a difficult feeling to cope with, but it’s also hard to treat in therapy. 

    I’ve tried multiple approaches when it comes to treating lack of motivation. Creating incrementally small goals for yourself and building on them can be helpful. Changing the way we think about motivation works pretty well: replacing the idea that motivation creates action with the idea that action must come first and motivation follows. But there is one approach I’ve found that helps clients really grasp the abstract process of building motivation. 

    This is where the good boss question comes in. I’ve heard a lot of answers to these questions. Some people say they loved the boss who didn’t micromanage them—they trusted their employees to be competent and reliable, rather than hovering over them critiquing every single thing. Others say they like the boss who took the time to get to know them and didn’t place more emphasis on productivity than employee happiness. Another client said that they had a boss who just brought positive and uplifting energy to the workplace. 

    Once my clients have answered this question, I ask them the natural follow-up question: who was the worst boss you ever had? And let me tell you, people have some crazy stories. But for the most part, I hear things like, “They always nitpicked every small mistake I made,” or, “They refused to work with me if I had a family emergency or got sick.” A lack of communication was also a big problem for many clients. 

    The next question I ask is, “How did each of these bosses respond when you made a mistake?” The answers to these questions are pretty unanimous among my clients. They say that the bad bosses would become angry, threaten disciplinary action, and/or belittle the employee. On the other hand, the good bosses would take the time to explore the issue with the employee to identify what could be done better, but they did not dwell on the fact that the employee messed up— they provided reassurance and encouragement so that the employee felt empowered to improve. 

    The final question I ask is simple: which boss did you work harder for? 100% of the time, the answer is the good boss. At this point, a lot of clients know where I’m going with this, but I spell it out anyway. When you are struggling to complete basic tasks because you lack motivation, what are you saying to yourself about it? People have the tendency to be pretty vicious with themselves. Most of my clients (and, if I’m honest, me) speak to themselves in a way that we would never speak to another human being. 

    If you are internally beating the crap out of yourself, why do you think that will create positive change? If you can’t bring yourself to unload the dishwasher before you go to bed, and you say to yourself, “What is wrong with me, this isn’t that big of a task and I still can’t do it. I’m a lazy piece of ****,” do you really believe that will help you get the task done? The answer is no: You are chipping away at your self-esteem bit by bit. And as you do that, you sink deeper and deeper into the hole. 

    If you were to replace that thinking by saying, “I wasn’t able to empty the dishwasher like I wanted to, and that’s disappointing. But tomorrow is a new day, and I will put one foot in front of the other and get it done, even if it takes a little longer than usual,” what effect do you think that would have? This way of thinking doesn’t let you off the hook for emptying the dishwasher—you are simply treating yourself as you would (hopefully) treat someone else in the same situation. 

Being a little kinder to yourself costs nothing and takes a few seconds at most. And of all the techniques I have used to battle the lack of motivation in clients, this has been, by far, the most effective. You are the boss of yourself—you can decide whether to be a good boss or a bad boss. While becoming a good boss for yourself may take a lot of practice, the payoff is worth it. 


Colleen Kidd

Colleen Kidd

Director of Psychotherapy