When Bad Bosses Happen To Good Employees

by Knight, Jeanne Wednesday, October 08, 2008
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Chances are good that at some point in your career you will intersect with a bad boss. From middle management to CEOs, bosses who lack managerial, communication, and/or people skills exist in every level of business. Further, in these times when companies are driven by a challenging economy to run leaner operations, pressure can push even good bosses to stress-induced behaviors that create a poor working environment.

There’s a saying that, “People don’t quit their companies; they quit their managers.” Having to contend with a bad boss can wreak havoc on your drive, your self-esteem, and your job performance. It can seep into your personal life and create stress outside of work. It may even compel you to leave a job you otherwise enjoy.

Take heart. You can survive – even thrive – under a bad boss. In fact, a bad boss provides an excellent opportunity to learn how to “manage up” — an important and powerful skill to have in any working environment.

I'm working for a bad boss. What's my first step?

Your first step toward improving your situation is trying to pinpoint which of your boss’ behaviors are bothering or offending you. Is your boss too demanding? Does (s)he issue unrealistic deadlines? Is your boss a micromanager? Or, is (s)he so hands-off that you feel adrift? Is your boss abrupt, critical, or even abusive? Does (s)he chastise you in front of your colleagues?

Consider what circumstances might be triggering these behaviors. Does your boss’ behavior get more intolerable near quarter-end, just before a board meeting or deadline, or after (s)he meets with his/her boss? Or, is your boss consistently unpleasant and/or unreasonable? Does your boss treat everyone the same way? Or, are his/her negative behaviors directed only at you?

My boss treats everyone like dirt. How do I cope?

If your boss seems to treat everyone in the same negative way, then you know his/her bad behavior has nothing to do with you personally, and everything to do with your boss’ style and/or stress level. In this situation, it’s important for you to depersonalize his/her behavior and let it roll off your back. Recognizing that you are not wearing a target allows you to remove emotion from the equation, keep your self-esteem intact, and employ strategies for anticipating and mitigating your boss’ actions.

If a boss repeatedly cuts you and your colleagues off when you speak at staff meetings, let him/her have the floor and wait for another opening in the discussion to interject. Or, find an alternative means of communicating your idea — a post-meeting email, for example. If your boss can be counted on to bark at whichever staff member is unlucky enough to be near him/her when a crucial deadline looms, steer clear of his/her office as much as is realistic until the deadline passes. If your boss’ temper flares and (s)he seems intent on goading you into a confrontation, deflect his/her anger by keeping your own emotions in check and responding with neutral language, such as “I understand,” “Good point,” or “You’re right.”

Above all, remember not to feed conflict with an emotional response. Odds are that you will bear the brunt of the consequences for a negative confrontation.

I think my boss has it out for me. What do I do?

If you seem to be the only one bearing the brunt of your boss’ bad behaviors, then it’s time to do some honest self-reflection. What about your performance might be causing a negative reaction in your boss? Do you complete your assignments well and on time? Do you work well independently? Do you take initiative? Ask trusted coworkers for their honest feedback. Also, consider who in your company does not receive negative treatment. What about their work and/or communication styles do you think resonates with your boss? Does your style differ? How?

A critical component of this self-evaluation process is understanding exactly what your boss’ expectations are. If you find yourself unsure on this point, schedule a meeting to review your job purpose, goals, and performance. Make sure that this meeting is collaborative in tone. Focus on how you and your boss can best work together to help you meet the needs and objectives of the company.

It’s possible that shifting how you approach your job could greatly improve how your boss approaches you.

No. You don't understand. My boss is really bad. What do I do?

If you are convinced that a deficiency in your performance isn’t triggering your boss’ bad behavior and/or you’ve simply worn yourself out trying to deflect your boss’ negative energy, then a very carefully planned and executed meeting with your boss to specifically address his/her negative behaviors may help — particularly if your boss has some “sane” moments when you can calmly and professionally approach them. Note: a meeting like this can backfire. So, make sure your resume is up to date and that you are comfortable with the idea that you may need to leave if it goes badly.

Again, take pains to set a collaborative, not accusatory, tone for the meeting. Focus on only one or two objectionable behaviors that are most important to you rather than hitting your boss with a laundry list of offenses. Too many offenses could make your boss defensive and escalate your meeting into a confrontation. Open the discussion by outlining some examples. Explain how his/her behavior made you feel, ask him/her what caused his/her reaction(s), and then suggest working together to find a means of communicating that both parties are comfortable with.

If all coping strategies fail to improve your work life under the shadow of a bad boss, then, unfortunately, starting a job search may be your best recourse. Some bad bosses really are like “old dogs,” and can’t be taught new tricks. Better to find a new work environment that nourishes your well-being and contributions than to stay in one that smothers them.