How to Survive a Bad Boss
A version of this article was first published on Troy Media.
Cindy, a consistently high performer, has been with her firm for 10 years. She really likes the company, her job and the people she works with. About 6 months ago she found herself with a new boss. He’s an up-and-comer; young, ambitious but lacking in leadership savvy. Determined to prove himself, he pushes people hard without providing the support or structure they need. Cindy was patient, assuming he would settle into the role. But he hasn’t. She is angry, frustrated, and thinking about leaving the company. Studies consistently show one of the top reasons people quit a job is to escape a bad boss. At some point in your career you will probably find yourself in this situation. Is it always worth throwing in the towel and finding something else to do? Not always. If you don’t want to, or can’t, leave your job what can you do?
Is it me or is it you?
The first step is to determine if the problem is your boss. Do others feel the same way? If you are surrounded by a crowd, you can safely assume your boss is the problem. If, on the other hand, everyone else seems to be getting along, it is probably an issue of fit between the two of you. And if this is a problem you encounter time and time again, it is probably about you.
Start with empathy
Let’s assume your boss is the problem. As difficult as it might be, try to look past your frustration and seek to understand why they are such a challenge. Very few people try to be terrible on purpose. So what’s going on? If your boss is approachable, a conversation may be appropriate. Perhaps something like, “I can see you struggling in this role, and it is making things difficult for me too. What can I do to help you so we are both successful?”
Take advantage of safe ways to provide feedback to the company about the situation. If you have a human resources person you trust, share your feedback and ask for advice. If someone from senior management asks how things are going, be diplomatic but candid. Again, a good strategy is to ask for advice about how to work with your boss more effectively. It sends the message there is a problem, but you are looking for solutions.
Play the waiting game
When my friend Jack was dealing with a bad boss I suggested the company would probably figure out they had a problem. I advised him to be patient and wait it out. It took almost a year, but a 360-degree review was promptly followed by his boss being reassigned. If you think your company knows they have a problem, it is probably worth hanging on until they make a change.
Disengage emotionally from the relationship
While you are waiting for the situation to resolve itself, don’t let your boss’ bad behaviour get the better of you. If you know you won’t get what you need, do yourself a favour and don’t cling to unrealistic expectations; the only person who will be disappointed is you. Manage your expectations and limit your interactions. Get good at finding alternate paths to getting what you need, whether it is support, resources or a sounding board. Rely on your boss as a last resort. Be respectful and responsive to requests for meetings or information, but don’t initiate them more than is required.
Limit the time you spend venting with colleagues. Negative energy produces more negative energy. Instead, look for support outside of work. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you can often use this to speak to a counsellor who will provide coping strategies.
If you have a boss who is struggling, there is a chance he or she will look for people to blame or ways to change the situation. This is why it is important you handle yourself well. If you want to stay in your job, the last thing you want to do is give someone a reason to end your employment. This is also a good time to dust off your resume, update your LinkedIn profile, and keep an eye on the job market.
Learn from it
Finally, take advantage of this as a learning opportunity. Most managers say their best leadership lessons came from working for a bad boss.
This article was inspired during a walk on the forest with a friend who was recollecting the last 10 years of his career and a run of bad bosses he had survived several years earlier. It made me especially appreciative of the (mostly) pretty good bosses I have had over the years, and also reminded me of the very best thing about working for yourself - no boss.
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Rebecca Schalm, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO