We've all had them – those bosses we can't stand. They drive us nuts with their micromanaging, bullying, insecurity, or incompetence.
But there's good news – all of them can be managed and made bearable with a little effort on your part. This post complements the perspectives in 10 Reasons Your Team Hates You and 9 Valid Reasons for Killing a Coworker (yes, this blog gets edgy at times). Since those put us in countdown mode, allow me to share eight keys to taming a terrible boss.
What I'll do is lay out the archetypical terrible boss, describe some of their symptoms so you can accurately identify them, then offer a tip for managing them and getting them to make your life a little less miserable.
The boss types I'll cover are the micromanager, the bully, the incompetent, the politician, the credit-stealer, the know-it-all, the marshmallow, and the loafer. Some bosses exhibit multiple symptoms of the above types so understand you might have to employ several of the following techniques to make your life more bearable. So here they are in no particular order – let's bring on those bad bosses!
Symptoms: they follow your every move, demand status updates every 38 seconds, and tell you how to perform every single task they've assigned you including how to sharpen your pencils and staple a presentation together.
Tip to Tame: don't avoid them – you'll make it worse. Instead, proactively inform them of status regularly until they get comfortable with your work. Ask their suggestions on how they want things done before you do them. Once they know they'll have input and they'll be in the loop, they should back off (assuming you don't screw up your deliverables in which case they'll be in your shorts even worse). You can also take a look at this post for more thoughts on dealing with control freaks.
Symptoms: Willing to chuck you under the bus to save their own skin. Brown-noses any senior exec that will advance their career. Avoids all conflict and rarely takes a stand that they can get "called" on later.
Tip to Tame: Understand their single objective function is their personal advancement. Help them see how your project will advance their agenda and their career. Help them understand how much of an asset you are to them in advancing their cause. But still have your resume ready at all times because they could still chuck you under the bus.
Symptoms: "Hey boss, look at this awesome project I did! No, my team didn't help at all. It's all my own thinking."
Tip to Tame: They just want to look good because they're insecure and they're likely also the Loafer or the Incompetent (see below). If you try to take all the credit for your own work, it will backfire with this boss. Instead, when you present or share your work, list your boss prominently as a contributor regardless of how much of the project they personally did. They did hire you after all, didn't they? And they gave you the space and resources to do the work, right? Then give them some credit. When you give them credit, they're less likely to try to steal some.
Symptoms: "That's not how you do it. You need to do it this way." Also, they can't ever be taught anything. Ever. You will see some symptoms of the Micromanager in this archetype as well.
Tip to Tame: Use the Socratic method. Ask logical questions that lead to the obvious (and only) answer but let your boss arrive at the conclusion. Sure, it's less satisfying than throwing out the conclusion yourself but all that does is invite conflict and what's really important here is getting to the right answer for the business, right? Just be sure your boss lets you do the hard work and get credit for executing the idea so everyone else knows the value you bring.
Symptoms: Derp. This boss can't lead their way out of a burning one-door outhouse and they have no clue as to how your business runs.
Tip to Tame: Arrange time with them every week to educate them on a new aspect of the business (yes, I'm telling you to train your boss). Let them know you want to help them succeed and the best way you know how to do that is to give them solid grounding on the business. Do so in a non-threatening way (try "I know you already know most of this boss but I just want to give you a refresher…").
Symptoms: Easily pushed around by more aggressive peers and bosses. Never takes a stand on anything. Values peace over progress.
Tip to Tame: Help them win some small victories. They're a marshmallow because they lack confidence. Set them up to succeed in an argument. Make it small stakes but give them a ton of ammunition to win the battle. Arm them with data, facts, conclusions, and insights. After a few small victories and seeing the benefits that inure to their organization, your boss might sprout a spine.
Symptoms: Stacks of paperwork awaiting action cover their desk. They sit in the back of all meetings and don't contribute. They let their team clean up their messes. Note: the Loafer could turn into the Credit-Stealer if provoked and threatened.
Tip to Tame: Rather than throwing everything their way, give them only the most critical of tasks to complete that only they are capable of completing. Be transparent about it too – "Hey boss, I know you're crazy busy so I'm not gonna bother you with things you don't need to do. I just need you to do this ONE thing because you're the only one who can." Appealing to their inner sloth (less work) combined with the ego stroke should get them to focus long enough to do the occasional project.
Symptoms: Yells, insults, belittles. Might use bronzer and gel. Threatens unemployment.
Tip to Tame: Some bullies need a beatdown. First, provide feedback and let them know you feel threatened. Second, include them in your reindeer games – bullies bully people because they're mad and often feel left out. Third, if those two don't work, have a sit-down with HR over the issue. For more tips on dealing with workplace bullies.
The Bottom Line
Bad bosses suck but the only thing that sucks more is doing nothing about it. Step up. Fix things. Work with your boss to help them improve. They don't want to be a bad boss – they just might not know any better. Remember – at some point they made you a job offer and you eagerly accepted because you wanted to work with them. Find that excitement again and go help your boss be a better leader.