Managing Your Bad Boss

Managing Your Bad Boss

By David Silverman, Harvard Business School for BusinessWeek

So, your boss is a dud. A bully. A person you’d do anything to avoid. Maybe he or she embodies all of the habits I wrote about in the first post in this series. What now?

First, here’s my short list of how we may make the workplace bearable when our bosses aren’t.

Commiserate. The worst bosses make for the best co-worker relationships. You can end every office squabble by saying, “Hey, I’m keeping the boss off your back!”

Sabotage. Does your boss have a personal refrigerator not allowed by company policy? Did you really get a package for him or did it “accidentally” get reshipped to the Tunisia office?

Question everything. You don’t want to make any mistakes, so check every detail. “By ‘blue,’ do you mean aqua or more teal? Can you give me the RGB values of the ‘blue’ you’re looking for? To be safe, I’ll hold off on the presentation till you decide.”

Travel. Travel. Travel. Where in the world does your Blackberry not work? In your case, anywhere more exotic than 10 feet from your desk.

YouTube. Lots and lots of YouTube.

*While I would certainly never advocate behaving unethically (and therefore most of this) it strikes me as more true than not that people working for a bad boss use these tactics, albeit often unconsciously—and that’s not a reasonable way for you or your boss to survive the workday.

But in my experience, really outlasting a bully requires a thickening of your own skin and, as unpleasant as it sounds, a change of attitude to helping, rather than hindering, your bad boss.

In a good employer-employee relationship, the relationship is a two-way street. The boss seeks to know what you want and explains clearly his, and the company’s, goals. The bully boss, however, does not care about you and will not (or cannot figure out how to) be open and honest. This makes your attempt to please the boss harder—but not impossible.

Chances are good (based on my experience with many bosses and employees) that you and your bully boss are at cross purposes. Maybe she has pet projects that you find frivolous and distracting. Or perhaps you want to get promoted and your boss wants you to keep a low profile so the spotlight remains on him. If that’s true, the boss will view you and all your actions—aimed to show the world how good you are—as threats to his stability.

With these issues and others in mind, here’s my revised list for really managing your bad boss:

Understand what your boss’ goals are (i.e. “get ahead” or “stay put”) and how your objectives differ. How might your boss perceive you as a threat? Use that knowledge to keep from stepping on toes.

Show your boss how you will support him or her. Focus on helping with the tasks your boss is weakest at, while being careful not to criticize.

Head off confrontations. Just because your boss sent you 20 emails on your vacation doesn’t mean you need to respond while water skiing. Take a breath and when you write back, keep it professional.

Document your job requirements. Listing all the projects and tasks expected of you will help minimize the amount of “and one more thing” e-mails. And if you boss continues to come up with stuff to do, you at least have the documentation to support the need for more staff.

Keep your goals secondary until (and if ever) you can win your boss’ trust.

Do this and you might win over your boss to help support your career path. He still won’t care about you, but it will be more valuable to him to help than crush your will to work.

And if nothing works, remember: this too shall pass. But you may need to help things along, so stop reading this and get cracking on your resume.

How about you? Have you found successful methods of dealing with office bullies? Do you think it’s wrong to subordinate fully to the bad boss? Do you think some bosses are so bad that there’s no way to manage them? And what about my first list? Is it tongue-in-cheek, or do you think it’s what really happens?

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

Read all of our Office Management Articles.

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