How to Handle a Bad Boss

You’ve found a job you love, the company is growing, and the benefits are great… and yet, you’re going home miserable and frustrated every day. In fact, you’re considering leaving. And it’s all because of one person.

Your boss.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, if it does, you’re not alone. Over 40% of workers in a recent UK survey have left a job because of a bad boss, CIPD reports.

With so many of us dealing with an epidemic of bad bosses, there must be some strategies for making your working day easier right? Right! Read on for some ideas for coping with your boss, even in the most difficult situations, which have the added benefit of helping you to become a better leader yourself.

  1. First things first: understand his motivations

One of the most important things for “managing up” is finding out what makes your bad boss tick. First up, what would he love more of and what would he love less of on a daily basis? Knowing this will help you to adjust your daily working routines for a smoother relationship.

But aside from the day-to-day stuff, you need to understand him on a deeper level. What does he care about? What keeps him up at night? What frightens him? When you know his fears and aspirations, you can help to alleviate problems and help him reach his goals (more on this later).

How does he measure success and what does he think about failure? How important is impressing others to him? Knowing how he deals with broader issues around success, disappointment and image will help you to mediate between him and your working environment, and also to prioritise your own work so that it helps you to maintain a good relationship.

Once you know what drives your boss, you can frame your suggestions and arguments in terms of what will appeal to his priorities. Then, he is more likely to listen to you and take your ideas on board. When you’re not communicating in the same way, and you’re not taking account of how your boss wants to do things, it’s easy to end up at loggerheads. Even if you’re saying the same things, your stubborn boss may not hear them unless you present them in the right way.

This is going to involve having some empathy for the one person who distresses you most in your working life (or possibly your entire life – they can’t take a huge toll!). Trying to understand why they are the way they are is really important for being able to work around them or manage up. It’s a rare situation that your boss is simply evil. It may be that they were not actually ready to take a leadership position when they were thrust into it, or they lack the managerial skills to do it well. Although blaming them might feel good, it doesn’t do much to help your current situation.

  1. Understand his preferences and adapt to them

What is his behavioural style? What are his pet peeves? You don’t want to be walking on eggshells around him, but if you can get to know and respect his preferred ways of working, you can make everything run smoother. Does he prefer to communicate by email or in person? Respond appropriately. Does he take a long time to think things through? Respect his time and don’t pester him for feedback or a decision when you know he’ll come back to you in his own time. It might be frustrating, but it will be less infuriating that constantly butting your head against a brick wall. This is a key leadership skill to develop, not matter what kind of leader your boss is.

  1. Don’t try to undermine him – rather, try to support his successes

It may feel deeply counter-intuitive (not to mention unfair) to support a bad boss in becoming more successful, but as satisfying as it might be to show the world his incompetence, it will do you no favours. If your boss is really all that bad, he’ll show up his own failings without your help. If you try to damage him or his reputation, it is likely to reflect badly on you. Show integrity and actually support him to become better – it will take you a lot further.

It can also be helpful to find ways to work around his negative traits. For example, if he’s always late to meetings, instead of whining over your coffee, offer to start the next meeting for him. If you know that he’s disorganised and forgetful, or changes his mind all the time, document your interactions so you’ve got evidence to refer to if he tries to make you think you’re in the wrong.

  1. Don’t let his poor work affect your own

Take the high road. Don’t let his poor work be an excuse to slack off or do half a job. Complain as much as you want on you own time, at home, but when you’re on the job, remember that it’s your performance that matters. You might not be aware of them watching, but people will notice your high calibre of work and it will pay off in the long run.

In fact, being able to handle a difficult boss can really set you apart. Believe it or not, others will probably know how hard he is to work with, and will commend you for dealing with it effectively. It shows some great self-management skills and that you can also manage difficult situations. Instead of ruing him, be the leader that you wish your boss could be.

Even when you’re at the end of your tether and you feel like you can’t take anymore, don’t go around badmouthing him and complaining to workmates. If you have to put in a formal complaint, go through the proper channels with HR and document each step.

  1. Try to address concerns before you give it all in

It’s an oft-stated truism that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. If yours is really that bad, there might be some ways to work around him or her, before you are forced to leave. You don’t know what opportunities might be around the corner if you can just get past your boss. Before you burn any bridges or take decisions you can’t go back on, try opening a dialogue, suggesting some solutions. What have you got to lose? It might feel difficult, but if you actually enjoy your job and the only problem is your bad boss, is it worth leaving when you could change your current situation? In the end, it might not change anything. But at least you gave it a chance, and you know that you did all you could.

Allow your bad boss the opportunity to respond. It’s easy to prejudge and assume they won’t be able to take feedback, or don’t care that you are miserable. But it’s not necessarily the case. If you approach them with respect, rather than anger, and a genuine desire to improve things, not just for yourself, but for them and the company, you might be surprised.

  1. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied: stand firm

If your boss likes to shout or criticise, he gets his power from others bending to his will. Don’t cower. Instead, stand firm and grounded in your decisions and the knowledge that you are doing the best you can. Don’t get into slanging matches with him. Don’t let him have the satisfaction of pushing you about. Instead, ask questions, try to understand, and work to diffuse difficult situations. It’s not easy, but you will get better at it with time, and he will come to know that he can’t satisfy his power kick with you.

If it does get to a point where you feel you need to call your boss out on his behaviour, be aware what the fallout might be. Have you determined your allies and people who will have your back? Have you documented his behaviour? It probably won’t be pretty, so be prepared. Sometimes, these things are worth the risk, but think carefully before you lash out, and try to maintain dignity and respect in your criticism.

  1. Break the cycle

Obviously, the ideal situation regarding bad bosses is not to get one in the first place. When you’re looking at moving to a new company, or even a move within your current workplace, do your research carefully. Take some time to find out about the working culture, the management styles and who your boss is likely to be. If your move is internal, network across the company well in advance to discover who you could be working with and how they find it.

If you’re currently working for a bad boss, and you’ve decided it’s time to move on, now’s the time to really research your potential new company, to ensure you’re not jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. When you’re feeling desperate to leave a bad situation, it can be easy to ignore warning signs about the new job and the ways in which it could actually be worse. Keep a clear head, and keep hopeful, but maintain a healthy scepticism and evaluate new opportunities well.

If you’ve found yourself with a bad boss, you get a lot of sympathy from me. But honestly, my sympathy won’t do you much good. Try consistently using some of the techniques above, and though it might take a little while, you may find yourself surprised at how much easier your boss becomes to work with. While you’re at it, you’re not just building your own management skills… you’re building character, too. Win, win!


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