Bad to the Bone: Dealing With a Bad Boss

The Unwitting Bad Boss and the Knowing Bad Boss Need Different Approaches

Bad female boss glares at an employee
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You're weary. You're frustrated. You're unhappy. You're demotivated. Your interaction with your boss leaves you cold. He's a bully, intrusive, controlling, picky or petty.

He takes credit for your work, never provides positive feedback and misses each meeting he schedules with you. Or he caves immediately under pressure and fails to support you in accomplishing your job. He never recognizes your excellent performance or that of any other employee so the office is joyless and unhappy.

He's a bad boss, bad to the bone. Dealing with a less than effective manager, or just plain bad managers and bad bosses, is a challenge too many employees face. No matter the character of your bad boss, these ideas will help you deal with it.

Does the Bad Boss Know?

Start your campaign by understanding that your boss may not know that he is a bad boss. Just as in situational leadership, the definition of bad depends on the employee's needs, the manager's skills and the circumstances.

A hands-off manager may not realize that his failure to provide any direction or feedback makes him a bad boss. He may think he’s empowering his staff. A manager who provides too much direction and micromanages may feel insecure and uncertain about his own job. He may not realize his direction is insulting to a competent, secure, self-directed staff member.

Or, maybe the boss lacks training and is so overwhelmed with his job requirements that he can’t provide support for you.

Perhaps he has been promoted too quickly or his reporting responsibilities have expanded beyond his reach. In these days of downsizing, responsibilities are often shared by fewer staff members than ever before which can affect their ability to do the job well.

This bad boss may not share your values.

The youngest generations of workers expect that they can use their vacation time and take action to make work-life balance a priority. A flexible work schedule may make the job their dream job. But, not all bosses share these views. Some, for example, think that remote workers harm the culture and interfere with developing a culture of teamwork.

If your values are out of sync with those of your boss, and you don't think this imbalance will change, you do have a problem. Maybe it's time to change bosses. But, until then, these actions are recommended for you to preserve your relationship, such as it is.

Recommended Approach to the Unwitting Bad Boss

  • Talk to this boss. Tell him what you need from him in term of direction, feedback, and support. Be polite and focus on your needs. You need to tell the boss exactly what you need from him. Telling the boss that he’s a bad boss is counterproductive and won’t help you meet your goals.
  • Ask the manager how you can help him reach his goals. Make sure you listen well and provide the needed assistance he requests.
  • Seek a mentor from among other managers or more skilled peers, with the full knowledge and cooperation of your current manager, to enlarge your opportunity for experience. 
  • If you’ve taken these actions, and they haven’t worked, go to your boss’s manager and ask for assistance. Or, you can go to your Human Resources staff first, to rehearse and gain advice. Understand that your current boss may never forgive you, so ensure that you have done what you can do with him, before taking your issues up the line.
  • You may never hear what the boss’s boss or the HR staff did to help solve your bad manager’s behavior. It’s confidential. But, do allow some time to pass for the actions to have their desired impact.
  • If nothing changes, despite your best efforts, and you think the problem is that they don’t believe you, draw together coworkers who also experience the behavior. Visit the boss’s manager to help him see the size and impact of the behavior.
  • If you think the problem is that your boss can’t— or won’t—change, ask for a transfer to another department. This recommendation presumes you like your employer and your work so you don't regard quitting or job searching as your best option.

When the Bad Boss Knows

A manager at a mid-sized manufacturing company wanted to improve his approach to working with his employees. He knew that he looked down his nose at them. He criticized and screamed at employees. He publicly humiliated any employee who made a mistake, as examples.

One day he called to ask a question of his consultant. The question doomed her to disappointment when he said, “I know that you don’t approve of me screaming at staff as a regular thing.” Agreed, she said. “So, can you tell me, please, what are the circumstances under which it is okay for me to scream at them?”

This manager thought his behavior was perfectly acceptable. (The end of the story? He never did change and was eventually removed as manager.) Most managers that bully, intimidate, cruelly criticize, name-call and treat you as if you are stupid likely know what they are doing. They may know they’re bad and even revel in their badness. 

They may feel their behavior has been condoned—and even encouraged—within their organization. They may have learned the behaviors from their former supervisor who was viewed as successful.

You don’t have to put up with demeaning behavior. You deserve a good boss who helps your self-confidence and self-esteem grow. You deserve a good boss who helps you advance your career. You deserve civil, professional treatment at work.

Recommended Approach to the Bad Boss Who Knows He's Bad

  • Start by recognizing that you have the right to a professional environment in your workplace. You are not the problem. You have a bad boss. He is the problem. You need to deal with him.
  • You can try talking with the bad boss to tell him the impact that his actions or words are having on you or your performance. In a rare blue moon, the bad boss might care enough to work to modify his behavior.

    If he does decide to work on his behavior, hold him to his commitments. If you allow him to yell at you, even just a little bit, you are training him that he can get away with his former behavior. Don’t go to war publicly, but draw his behavior to his attention as soon as you have the opportunity, privately.
  • If the behavior does not change, appeal to his supervisor and to Human Resources staff. Describe exactly what he does and the impact the behavior is having on you and your job performance.

    You may never hear what the boss’s boss or the HR staff did to help solve your bad manager’s behavior. It’s confidential. But, do allow some time to pass for the actions they may have tried to have their desired impact.
  • If nothing changes, despite your best efforts, and you think the problem is that they don’t believe you, draw together coworkers who also experience the behavior. Visit the boss’s manager to help him see the size and impact of the behavior.
  • If you think the problem is that your boss can’t—or won’t—change, ask for a transfer to another department. This recommendation presumes that you like your employer and your work. If not, job searching may be your next best option.
  • If a transfer or promotion is unavailable, begin your search for a new job for sure. Fleeing is always an option if your bad boss won't change. You may want to conduct your job search secretly, but under the circumstances, it may be time for you to go.