Article Overview

The project management experts, Steve Lauck and Jon M. Quigley, provide an excellent overview of the most crucial warning signs of a bad boss or manager in the article that follows.

Table of Contents

Anybody every watch Lost in Space? I watched this as a kid and it is funny how it left a mark even to this day. I remember witnessing things as a younger engineer and project manager that would lead me to this catchy phrase, “danger, danger Will Robinson!” In fact, I have a little character around the house somewhere that a work friend gave me, presumably because I would say this when bad things were afoot.  Poor decisions incoming? Danger, danger Will Robinson. This includes, and probably especially, human behavior. We differentiate human behavior from physical phenomenon because it is possible to understand physical things, at least in part. Physical phenomena are determinable from a range of possible outcomes.  Even Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle allows us to account or predict to some degree, and this is for complex physics phenomena.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is a law in quantum mechanics that limits how accurately you can measure two related variables. Specifically, it says that the more accurately you measure the momentum (or velocity) of a particle, the less accurately you can know its position, and vice versa.1

People, not so much. People are not calculatable. People are rarely repeatable. If you have a family member that says “you always do”, or “you never do” you can tell them you are human and you’re not that repeatable. This applies to managers, project managers and all manner of employee for as long as employees are biological entities, or, to quote Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide a “carbon-based life form”.

  • Conflict
  • Political Motivation
  • Self-Promotion
  • Expects 24/7 Employees
  • Doesn’t Admit Mistakes
  • Shifting Principles


A manager that allows conflict within the team to continue in perpetuity, rather than work to resolve, not just cover up. Covering up conflict is a short-term approach that has long term consequences and some managers may not be able to handle the conflict opting for suppression and everybody making nice. This will not likely be a successful strategy. Rather than suppress, take some time with the disputing factions to understand the root and reason for this difficulty and then take active measures to make this better. It is likely there is some level of misunderstanding that simply discussing can improve the situation and the effort of trying to resolve may reduce tensions as well. It shows the team members that conflict is productive and used to think out of the box for solutions if we have the perspective and persistence to do so.

Political Motivation

The team needs to have some confidence in the reasons why the manager makes the decisions they make. A team that understands the underlying principles that influence the manager’s decisions, make decisions themselves that follow the manager and the team’s principles. This results in the team being in a competent position in making decisions congruent with the manager when the manager is not around. The result is that we do not need the manager to make all effective decisions, and this is fundamental to empowerment of the team member.

A manager that has a high degree of political motivation. The manager that has this highly political motivation may waffle with the prevailing political winds rather than base the approach on fundamental principles related to the work.

Lying is one of the ways political motivation shows up. Answering direct questions from a senior manager about a particular project, the PM is expected to tell the truth. Working on a new product development project, I was asked about the progress. The progress was slow, and we had a few solvable issues. I explained that to the senior manager. On my way to my office, I was stopped by my boss who ask what I had told the senior manager. I repeated our conversation. My boss told me the next time any senior manager asked me a question, even if I know the answer, lie. Everything on this project is perfect. I started wondering what my boss had been lying about to this point. I left the project in a few weeks.

Another example of political motivation is closed door verbal abuse. This #$&! Project will be a success!  A specific project was not going as quickly as my boss wanted. While it was on schedule a few identified risks happened. While the boss never used abusive language with me, I had other team members and stakeholders notify me that my boss had cussed at them, and a few were threatened with job loss if this project did not go smoothly and quickly.


A boss who is always promoting his strengths while calling attention to the weaknesses of his project managers and teams is another bad boss scenario. An example of this is when a boss doctors or rewrites reports and cost summaries before forwarding to the client. Usually followed by sending you a copy of the ‘corrected’ document along with a note to outline your short comings. One may or may not learn directly from the client that the boss is also mentioning your short comings to them.

Presentations to the Sponsor or a Steering Committee. A boss that asked you not to send the latest project update to anyone, they will deliver it in person to the sponsor or steering committee. I doubt there is any issue with a PM’s deliver and usually the boss wants face time with these individuals rather than you having the face time.

Expects 24/7 Employees

In today’s business environment working 24/7 is seemed to be required. However, unless it is in the job description or job expectations, employees should not be on call work 24/7. This is not a sustainable situation.  I remember a boss saying ‘are you going home tonight? This is due in a few days.’ Our experience is that project managers generally manage and plan their time well. Bosses who ask questions like ‘are you going home tonight?’ or imply that not working more than 8 hours a day means one is not dedicated. Work from home has made the delineation of work and home time very nebulous. Even at the writing of this, one of us has been attempting to take vacation and customer emergent demands have made it impossible to take an entire day off.

Years ago, a blizzard hit my town; 12+ inches of snow with winds in excess of 40mph. I called in to leave a message that I was not coming in. In fact, the road that the office was closed to traffic. My boss’ boss answered the phone and wanted to know why I didn’t come in before the storm hit? He had come in, slept on his desk, and ate from the vending machines. I admitted I really hadn’t given any thought due to family needs. Two days later I was fired for not performing my duties to management’s expectations.

Doesn’t Admit Mistakes

Some bosses or managers think they are perfect, why else would they be the boss. Perhaps they believe that making mistakes to be a sign of a bad boss, or somebody that does not know what they are doing. A common sign is bosses asking employees to take care of something or make a phone call to a client for them. A PM manager sometimes has a project load just like those in his department. In one case, the company did an internal audit of project success and found the manager’s project were behind or over budget. When the report was issued and reviewed with top management, the manager is started calling out his department for his mistakes or highly their project issues to redirect the focus from their projects.

Shifting Principles

It is okay to change what we think or believe. We learn as we grow, and that learning may alter subtly or significantly, our principles. Whether you are a team leader, manager, or a team member, a demonstration of principles provides a foundation that allows for (our) predictability by our associates. This can be helpful. When we do not act principledly, this disrupts predictability by our team members, and as such will impact out team’s ability to trust us.


There are many things that go into making work life difficult. Some of this is self-inflicted, because the work place is, well occupied by people. People that are indeterminant. People that act in ways that are not calculatable, or often anticipatable by other carbon-based lifeforms. People that do not operate on the things we can see or witness, and there is no way to draw a conclusion – see affect, and presume reason, or said in Latin to sound fancy, post hoc ergo propter hoc, which translated means after this, therefore because of this.

Perhaps the only way through this is to constantly improve ourselves and not be afraid to be human. Use the interactions similar to the above-mentioned situations to be a learning exercise. To, as we have, say that I will not behave that way around or to my employees or team members.


1Study: Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: Importance & Background last accessed 6/3/2021