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5 Tips When Working for a Bad Boss

The Research & Technology Executive Council examines solutions when working for a bad boss in their latest Talent Matters series.

Everyone complains about their boss from time to time. But there’s a difference between everyday griping and stressful dissatisfaction, just as there is a clear distinction between a flawed manager and a truly horrible boss.

Difficult bosses come in lots of different flavors. Your manager might be overly controlling, giving you little to no autonomy. Or perhaps she rarely shows up at the office, doesn’t give you direction or feedback, and has no idea what you do all day. Bad bosses may be insecure, incompetent, or simply new and inexperienced. First-time managers are often more likely to hinder than enhance employee performance and potential. A 2005 study by CEB’s CLC Learning and Development Roundtable found that nearly 60% of first-time managers underperform in their role.

Working for a bad boss has a large effect on your work experience. Managers have a direct effect on how you perform and whether you want to stay in your job. They are the conduit between you, the organization, the team, and your job. CLC Human Resources found in its research that managers are increasingly important for improving discretionary effort: the impact of manager quality on whether employees go above and beyond the call of duty has jumped by 50% since the recession began. On the flip side, bad bosses sap motivation, kill productivity and drive everyone crazy.

If you work for someone you wish you didn’t, consider this:

  1. If it’s truly bad, speak up and/or leave: If you have a boss who is harassing you, bullying you or violating other workplace laws and policies, document as much as you can. If you feel you can have a direct conversation with your boss, then do that. If not, then take your case to HR or your boss’ superior. If nothing is done, you need to ask yourself if you want to continue working for a company that tolerates such behavior; it may be prudent to move somewhere that will treat you better.
  2. Accept it don’t fight it: If you’re dealing with more run-of-the-mill incompetence, there are other things you can do. Don’t continually rail against your boss. Accept that he has flaws and that you need to work with them. In fact, there may be ways that you can help compensate for them. It is always in your best interest to help your boss achieve his goals. Find out what he cares most about and focus your efforts on making him successful.
  3. Commiserate: One of the most helpful things you can do is seek out corroborators among your peers or others in the company. This will allow you blow off steam by venting with others who understand the situation. You can also rely on these alliances to help you develop strategies for dealing with the situation. Perhaps someone else has figured out how to approach your boss when she’s in a bad mood, or to circumvent her if she continually gets in the way.
  4. Adapt where possible: It may be not be that your boss is truly a bad manager but that he is a bad fit for you. Take a good look at yourself and see if there are things you can change about your own behavior that will make the working relationship easier. Remember the goal is to succeed not to be right.
  5. Look after yourself: Working for someone difficult will take its toll on your health as well as your productivity and performance. Since many people spend more time with their manager than they do with their spouse, it’s helpful to take breaks and carve out work time when you don’t need to interact with the boss. This may be a lunch break outside of the office or a side project that allows you to work elsewhere in the company. Also, bad management can be contagious; if you are being micromanaged you are more likely to try to control those around you. Try to stay true to your own values rather than succumb to passing on bad behavior.

Lucky for us, researchers tend to get a lot of exposure to others in the organization, and you can get a lot from these interactions, doing a lot of on-the-job learning that doesn’t require manager input.  For example, use a question-driven, step-by-step process to turn work projects in developmental opportunities.  You can also use our tools to help diagnose personal learning styles or the informal power structure at your organization to optimize your interactions with your manager.

And for managers looking to build the best experience for their teams, check out our resources for improving the team focus and culture and our advice for career planning and evaluation.

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