Is a Tough Boss, a Bad Boss? And, Should You Work for One?

Is a Tough Boss, a Bad Boss? And, Should You Work for One?

Does a tough boss really get more out of his people? Of course, he gets short-term results, but does he really help a company win in the long run?

We’d say yes and yes. But how tough a boss seems may well depend on your own performance. There can be little debate about the fact that top performers with great results tend to worry and complain a lot less about a tough boss than those struggling to meet expectations. That may sound tough itself, but it’s reality.

The definition of a tough boss.

Let’s talk about the meaning of tough. Without a doubt, there are tough bosses who are nothing more than bullying, power-drunk jerks, and they’re brutal to work for. They callously push their people, take credit when things go right, point fingers when they don’t, and generally are very stingy with praise and rewards. They can also be moody, political, manipulative, secretive, outright mean, or all of the above. Of course, sometimes these tough bosses get good results. But it’s rarely for long. At any decent company, they are removed or they self-destruct, whichever comes first.


At the other of the spectrum, and equally as damaging to the business, are the “Is everybody happy?” bosses. Yes, they may be enjoyable to work for—getting paid was never so easy!—but their spinelessness typically translates into mediocre results. Why?

At least three basic sins are at work:

  • These “nice” bosses treat everyone with the same wimpiness
  • They explain away misses without meting out consequences
  • They change direction according to the needs and wishes of the last person in their office. In a word, they have no edge.

Somewhere between the two extremes, and probably closer to the hard end than the soft, are bosses who define the notion of tough the right way, and because of that manage to get strong, long-term performance from their people. It is not going too far to say that such bosses are actually the heroes of business, not the villains. They might not make everyone feel warm and fuzzy, but their good results create a healthy, fair work environment where people and the company prosper, where there is job security for employees who perform well, and value for shareholders. What more could you want?


To these types of bosses, tough means tough-minded. They set clear, challenging goals. They connect those goals with specific expectations. They conduct frequent, rigorous performance reviews. They reward results accordingly, with the most praise and the highest bonuses going to the most effective contributors and commensurate compensation levels distributed down the line, ending with nothing for non-starters. They are relentlessly candid, letting everyone know where they stand and how the business is doing. Every single day, good tough bosses stretch people. They ask for a lot, and they expect to get it.

Does that make them hard to work for? Of course. But here’s where individual performance comes into play. If you’re up to the challenge, working for a tough boss can be incredibly energizing because you achieve in ways you never thought you could. However, if a tough boss raises the bar to a point where you are out of your league, then you’re likely to hate the experience. And if human nature is any guide, chances are you won’t blame yourself. You’ll blame the “tough” boss.

The point is:

There are good tough bosses and bad ones, and which is which is often in the eye of the beholder. Again, we’re not talking about the egregious cases of jerk bosses who berate and belittle their people. Everyone hates them, and they deserve universal loathing.

We’re talking about bosses who operate in the middle ground—bosses who are tough but fair, push hard but reward in equal measure, and who give it to you straight. Weak performers usually wish these bosses would go away.

People who want to win seek them out.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

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