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Liz Ryan Contributor

I write about bringing life to work and bringing work to life. full bio →

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

I was a Fortune 500 HR SVP for ten million years, but I was an opera singer before I ever heard the term HR. The higher I got in the corporate world, the more operatic the action became. I started writing about the workplace for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997, but it took me ages to find my own voice. Now I write for the Huffington Post, Business Week, LinkedIn, the Harvard Business Review, the Denver Post and Forbes.com and lead the worldwide Human Workplace movement to reinvent work for people. Stop by and join us: http://www.humanworkplace.com

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Leadership 2,360 views

Which Boss Is Worst: Screamer, Schemer, Or Snake In The Grass?

Working under a bad boss is a painful learning experience. Years later,  you still remember the lessons the bad boss taught you, most often learning of the “how not to be a leader” variety. At the time you’re chafing under the lousy leader’s direction, you don’t want to hear about learning. You just want the pain to go away.

Which is worst — the screaming rage-a-holic boss, the politically obsessed schemer who will step on anyone’s face necessary to keep climbing, or the snake in the grass who pretends to be your biggest supporter until s/he strikes? That’s a tough call.

I have worked for all three of these flavors of managers. In every case I wondered how the higher-ups could miss the incompetence on full display, but as I got older I noticed that people can be very good at playing two or more parts in the same production.

I never saw the face my crazy boss “Jane” showed to our CEO, who was a very reasonable guy. Maybe she was the soul of reason and calm in his presence. I knew her as a world-class screamer. 

Some bosses make no bones about their political ambitions. These are the bosses we call Schemers. We had a client we’ll call Mara who interviewed with a guy like that. “Your job, if I hire you, is to get me moved up to a Director position,” said Mara’s possible future manager.

“If that happens, do I take over your job?” asked Mara, completely innocently. She figured that was the guy’s plan – to hire someone like her to show the world that he was ready to get promoted, and then for that person to take over his job when he ascended to a higher level of management.

Why else would he tell Mara that he was planning to hold her responsible for his promotion?

“I certainly can’t say that you would take my job, if I got promoted!” said the dude huffily. At Human Workplace we say about a person in that state “He crossed the border into Indig Nation.”

The boss was horrified that Mara would assume he was looking for an heir apparent, when all he was looking for was a back to climb on. He had merely been thinking aloud. He wasn’t about to offer Mara any assurance that he cared two figs for her career. His sole focus was his own career.

The Schemer boss who interviewed Mara had forgotten that rational people don’t devote themselves to other people’s advancement without having some good reason to do so, such as the hope of a positive outcome for themselves.

Mara didn’t stay long in that interview pipeline. “I think the poor thing got so wound up in our interview that he regretted having been as forthcoming as he was with me, the minute he left our meeting,” said Mara. “He spoke out of turn by letting me know that the only thing he cared about was getting promoted.”

It turned out that the gentleman had been in the same job for 18 years watching people get promoted past him, one after the other.

He thought maybe Mara was his salvation and his ticket to the Director level. A year later, Mara told us, the guy was still sitting in the same job where she met him.


A snake in the grass manager — or co-worker, or subordinate team member for that matter – would never open the vault to bare his or her soul the way Mara’s interviewer did. A snake in the grass is someone who tells you they trust you, they like you and they only have your best interest in mind.

Then their fangs pierce you and you realize in a flash of insight that you’ve got their snake venom in your bloodstream.

I worked for a boss like that one time, too. She gave me faint praise all the time. Another name for faint praise is a left-handed compliment. “You are so naturally good at writing, in your very naive and unprofessional way,” she said, “and as soon as I teach you how to use proper business English, you’ll be qualified to use your writing here at work.”

One time my dear snake in the grass boss asked me to accompany her on a business trip. I was about 24 and very jazzed to go. We traveled to a big sales meeting. I had been talking to some of our sales reps for years without having met them in person. The meeting was very warm and fun.

Over and over my snakey boss said “Please make allowances for  Liz, who

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