Articles > Bad Bosses and How to Handle Them

Bad Bosses and How to Handle Them
Globe & Mail, May 06, 2002

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

He goes from strength to strength, even though everyone knows he has the spine of a jellyfish. He won't lobby for the resources you need, or stand up for you on critical issues. As a result, you are doing work below your own standards, but he doesn't seem to care -- so long as it gets done within the budget.

At the first sign of a conflict, he runs. He tolerates toxic behaviour from your co-workers and perhaps even encourages petty rivalries. He is a classic example of the weak manager, and a very bad boss.

Bad bosses -- whether jerks, bullies, or micro-managers -- have always been with us. Today, however, we're seeing more bad bosses than ever before. As a result of institutionalized leanness, overextended managers are both short-tempered and too busy or ill-trained to provide staff with the support they need. No one has as much power as a bad boss to unnerve you and wreak havoc on your sense of self-esteem. This is why it is commonly said that people don't quit jobs, they quit bosses.

What makes for a bad boss? Some are just plain nasty, but often, a bad boss is all in the eye of the beholder. One person's boss from hell may be another person's pinup. If you need regular direction, for example, you will be miserable with a hands-off, absentee manager, but if you have strong needs for autonomy you will flourish under the same regime.

Then again, the problem could be simply bad chemistry. She's an introvert and you're an extrovert. You like direction, she thinks you're "needy." You like to go home at six, she's a workaholic. So before you assume your boss is a complete jerk, ask yourself: Does she get along with others? Does she pick on everyone, or just you?

The key to getting on with a boss is to manage him by understanding his underlying motivations, which may be different than you think. Here are some common types of bad bosses, their motivations, and strategies for dealing with them. If you're a manager, look for yourself in these descriptions:

The weak manager

She won't stand up for you. She aggressively avoids taking risks. She's vague and her commitments have the sticking power of water.

But the underlying causes of her behaviour can vary. Often, she simply wants to be liked by everyone, and can't stand conflict. It's also possible she's too busy to understand when there is a problem, or too burned out to care. Frequently, such managers are reluctant to be managers at all, and would much rather be getting on with their own work as individuals.

They may also be ill-trained, and lacking management skills.

If you are dealing with a weak manager, identify the problem. For example, if your manager needs to be liked by everyone, avoid communications that suggest contentious or highly charged emotional issues. Where you can, solve conflicts yourself. If her problem is that she is spineless and refuses to take on any leadership role, talk to your boss's boss.

If your boss is too burned out to care or is a reluctant manager, work around her. Take the initiative to set out the parameters of the work. Give yourself the feedback you need. Pin your boss down by e-mail to a suggested meeting time.

Make her life easy by only talking to her about critical issues. If your boss is lacking management skills, tell her what you need from her to do your job. Then cover yourself by sending an e-mail.

The political manager

He has an unerring ability to know what will make him look good. He will go to bat for you only on issues that serve his political agenda. He's sneaky and plays favourites. He won't think twice about using you as a sacrificial lamb to support his own career goals.

Support his high need for recognition by making him look good on strategic projects. Focus your own efforts on "high-value" work. Be prepared to share the limelight, even if it kills you. Don't trust him to have your own interests at heart. Pitch him on work you want to do by emphasizing its profile and importance to senior management.

The black-and-white manager

He just doesn't get it -- either because he has the IQ of an eraser or he is as concrete as they come. He doesn't understand context, nuance, or high-level ideas.

If his problem is intellectual deficiency, indulge him like a misguided child. Better yet, ignore him if you can. But if the problem is one of cognitive style, shape your communications to his needs. If he is fact-oriented, don't waste your time painting compelling arguments based on ideas. Simply state the facts and provide information unembellished.

The obsessive micro-manager

She trusts you the way you'd trust a five-year-old behind the wheel of the car. No matter how much detail you give her, or how many times you do redo a piece of work, it's still not right. You're completely demotivated and have lost your sense of competence.

Why is she so untrusting? Is she anxious about failing to please her boss, or is she simply a control freak? If the problem is her own insecurity, anticipate issues that will make her anxious by reassuring her that you have covered all the bases. Say, for example, "in completing this I spoke to Jane Doe and took the following issues into account . . ." Write it down as well, as she may be too anxious to fully process what you are saying.

The invisible manager

You have no one to go to for direction. She doesn't have a clue about the volume or pace of your work. You're killing yourself, but no one notices or gives you feedback.

This manager shares many of the underlying motivations of the weak manager. She may be invisible because she's too busy, or is a reluctant or unskilled manager.

If she is pressed for time, do your homework before you meet with her to make the meeting as efficient as possible. Be strategic on issues where you need support. Give yourself direction and feedback by setting milestones and regularly evaluating your effectiveness against them. Thank yourself for a job well done. Establish a mechanism for getting direction, whether it be weekly or monthly meetings at an agreed time. Hold her to her commitment

The task master

He doesn't have a life, and doesn't expect you to either. You're drowning in work but he keeps heaping on more. His time-lines are ridiculous. Sometimes an extremely task-focused manager is simply shy or preoccupied, or so focused on getting the work done that he's not aware of the impact of his behaviour on the people around him. Is he aware of your work load?

If you've talked to him and he still doesn't get it, create your own standards for evaluating what is realistic and doable. Don't be apologetic about wanting time for a personal life. Work-life balance is your right, not a privilege. If your organization wants to "be an employer of choice" remind your boss of the incongruity between policy and behaviour.

The nasty manager

She's ruthless. She seems to take pleasure in watching you squirm. She has pets and you are not one of them.

Sometimes an apparently nasty boss is simply so task-focused that she is oblivious to how her behaviour makes you feel. Underneath a gruff exterior, as the saying goes, may be the heart of a pussycat. When you confront her, does she apologize, or get mad?

Regardless of what type of boss you have, your first line of defense is to speak to him, as he may not be aware of his behaviour. Don't make sweeping generalizations about his personality. Rather, talk to the specific behaviour in question and tell him how it makes you feel. You can soften your comments and avoid defensiveness by allowing your boss to save face. Introduce your statements with "You may not be aware . . ." or "You may not realize . . ." or "You may not intend . . ."

If none of these strategies work, you have two choices. If you have good personal reasons for staying in your job -- you love your work, you're learning a lot, you like the people you're working with -- you can hold your nose and ignore your boss as best you can. Or, you can quit: life is too short too deal with this kind of abuse.