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How to Deal with a Bad Boss — 3 Approaches

You’ve got a bad boss. Maybe it was a surprise — he seemed nice during the interview. Or maybe it was a gift from higher-up in the organization — she was brought in to replace your previous boss. Whatever the reason, now you’re stuck with a bad boss, and you have to do something.

There are basically three approaches to dealing with a bad boss: leave, get rid of the boss, or make the situation better. Here’s more information about each approach:

1. Leave
This seems like the most logical answer, but it’s actually the last alternative that you should consider. The unfortunate fact is that there are a lot of bad bosses out there, and you’re just as likely to leave one and end up working for another one. And it’s a shame to give up your knowledge and seniority in your position just because of this idiot you work for. And then there’s the current economy — jobs aren’t that easy to find these days.

Of course there’s more than one way to leave your current job. You can try to find another position in your current company — maybe something in another area that reports to someone else. That way you can broaden your experience base, continue with your company, and get away from your boss all at the same time.

And if your boss is just difficult to be around, then there are ways of “leaving” while staying in your current job. Telecommute as much as you can. Travel if it’s justified for your job. Spend time with customers. Do whatever it takes to decrease the amount of time that you actually have to spend face-to-face with your boss.

2. Get rid of the boss
This is the least common alternative, but I’ve had it work for me twice. There are two ways to get rid of the boss — well, two legal ones anyway. One is to get your boss a different job, and the other is to get your boss fired.

Getting your boss fired is the more difficult way unless your boss is doing something illegal. You have to somehow make your boss look really bad while making sure that the problem can’t be blamed on the employees. I don’t recommend this approach — it tends to backfire on you.

Getting your boss a different job is a bit counterintuitive. You have to make your bad boss look so good to upper management or an outside company that your boss is promoted or hired away. This is a much safer approach than getting your boss fired, and it can have huge benefits for you as well.

Think of it this way: In spite of your boss’s failures in his relationship with you, there’s probably something he does well. Maybe he was promoted into management from a “doer” position, and he was really best at being a super doer. Maybe he excels at independent thinking and strategy, but just has trouble with people skills.  In either case you need to convince your boss that he needs to focus on what he does best, and that he needs to build on his true strengths.  Work with your boss on a plan to highlight his skills and get him promoted or moved to a different position.

And if your boss doesn’t want to work with you on this, then do it anyway.  Play up your boss’s true strengths every chance you get.  Mention them to higher management whenever the occasion arises.  Praise the things that your boss does well, and make him a good candidate for promotion.

Why does finding your boss a better job have huge benefits for you? Because you’ve turned your bad boss into someone who owes you a favor. If the boss doesn’t immediately get a new position then you’ve improved your relationship with your boss.  And even if you’re caught trying this tactic then what can they say?  “You shouldn’t try to make your boss look good?”

3. Make the situation better
The last alternative is more practical in most situations.  First you have to understand that the bad relationship between you and your boss may have something to do with you. A relationship has two sides, and your behavior may be aggravating the problems between you and your boss.

The best way to improve your relationship with your boss is to try to put yourself in her shoes. Try to see things from her perspective: How is she being measured? What pressures is she under? What goals is she trying to achieve? If her organization isn’t achieving its goals, then her being rough on you may be her way of just trying to do her job.

Maybe her method of coping isn’t the best one, but to improve the situation you’ve got to ignore her methods for the moment and focus on the result she’s trying to achieve. If you help her achieve her goals, then you will change your position in her eyes from an adversary to an ally. And if you’re an ally then maybe you’ll be treated better.

So the best way to change your boss’s behavior toward you is to do the things that will help make your boss successful, and to make sure that your boss knows it. It will be hard for your boss to be harsh to someone who’s helping her, even if she’s a bad person at heart.

There’s also a bonus benefit to approach #3: If you help your boss become successful, then there’s a good chance that approach #3 will turn into approach #2.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Hunter December 2, 2009, 8:59 am

    Good advice. I have done 1 and 3. And for 1 I have both found other jobs in the same organization and left the organization. I think the main mistake people make in doing this is moving too quickly. Don’t just look for anything to escape. Find something good and then move. And 3 is a good idea not matter what – even if you boss is good. I have even had a boss I really didn’t like working with develop into one that I did. And I think that a significant part of that was my being proactive to try and help them improve and help improve the situation to reconfigure the organization in ways that worked better for the boss, the other employees and myself.

    You do need to look at how you can change and improve, also. And you need to realize how you can be most helpful depends on the other people (including your boss). You shouldn’t expect just that they need to change. You may well need to adapt to them to some degree.

    • Harwell December 2, 2009, 9:24 am

      Thanks for your comment. I agree.

  • Someone-In-A-Sinking-Boat December 21, 2009, 3:22 am

    Excellent and practical tips. Thanks!

  • Mason December 21, 2009, 7:09 am

    I am in the middle of a situation with my boss that was promoted because he knew someone; not that he had the qualification for the job. Talking the talk is cheap; doing it is another matter. Now after a year or trying to do number 3 no one knows anything or can do anything right in his eyes. (Mechanic Field)

    I am using an FLMA because of family condition and I had to file a grievance on him for talking about my personal information to others. Then one week later I had to start doing things others don’t have too. (harassment)

    Long story short is that the company is dragging their feet about getting this taken care of. Still debating the next step but it looks like it might be a lawyer; not sure.

    To all of you out there have a Happy Holiday.

  • jm December 21, 2009, 10:39 pm

    we (i and my co-employees) managed to do option 2. but we didn’t make our boss look good or bad. we just had to be honest and direct in telling the higher-ups that he wasn’t doing such a great job being our boss and that we didn’t agree with the way he handled his people. after that, he was moved to a different department and we worked happily ever after. peace. 😀

    lesson? sometimes you just have to be honest about what you think.
    the result could either be good or bad. but at least you were able to let them know how you feel about your boss.

    • Harwell December 22, 2009, 9:07 am

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that the approach worked out for you. It often doesn’t (that’s why I warned in the article about it “backfiring.”) I’m all for honesty, but it doesn’t always work because:

      1. Your boss’s boss tends to be biased in favor of your boss, especially if your boss’s boss is who hired your boss in the first place.
      2. It’s always assumed that employees of a person will tend to see their boss in the worst possible light. Therefore their information is considered suspect.
      3. Managers usually want to be supportive of their employees, and so your boss’s boss will initially try to support your boss in any disagreement.
      4. Employees who go over their boss’s head are doing an “end run” around their boss, and this practice is frowned upon.

      I’m not saying don’t be honest. I’m not saying that it’s never appropriate to go to your boss’s boss with a complaint. I’m just saying that you need to think carefully about such a thing before you do it, and you would do well to have some specific concrete evidence of incompetence.

  • Jaya Barla January 5, 2010, 3:50 am

    This is good advice.

    However I would like to point out to Point 3 – “The best way to improve your relationship with your boss is to try to put yourself in her shoes. ”

    “her shoes”… It seems like you are giving out the message that women bosses are the “bad bosses”. It is already difficult to deal with colleagues who have a pre-conceived notion of women bosses. I believe women end up having to work twice as hard simply because of these biases.

    • Harwell January 5, 2010, 8:13 am

      One of the unfortunate things about English is that there’s no singular pronoun that is gender neutral. I can say “he” or I can say “she” but there’s no pronoun like “they” for the singular case.
      I’ve approached this problem differently at different times, experimenting with alternate approaches. Sometimes I try to write every sentence using a plural pronoun, but you probably only have one boss, and so the situation here is a little more difficult. Sometimes I use “he/she,” but this gets awkward with a lot of pronouns in a paragraph.
      In this article I chose to alternate use of “he” and “she” in different parts of the article. The example you chose is the one where I was using “she,” but there’s certainly no intent on my part to label women as worse bosses than men. In fact if I had referred to every boss as “he” in the article, then I would have probably been criticized for implying that women can’t be bosses at all.
      My experience is that both men and women are bosses, and both men and women can be good bosses or bad bosses. They are bad bosses not because of their gender, but because of the way they choose to deal with employees.

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