Dealing with a bad boss can be one of the most nerve-wracking events of your career @HarvardBiz

Dealing with a Bad Boss, by John Beeson  |  12:32 PM June 28, 2012

John Beeson

JOHN BEESON John Beeson is Principal of Beeson Consulting, a management consulting firm specializing in succession planning, executive assessment and coaching, and organization design. He is also the author of The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level (Jossey-Bass.).

It’s often said there’s nothing certain in life except death and taxes. The parallel in organizational life is that at some point in your career you’ll have a bad boss — or at least a boss who’s bad for you. Bad bosses come in all shapes and sizes: abrasive and insensitive, indecisive, inconsistent and unfair, the micromanager who stifles your ability to perform and grow, and “matador managers” adept at sidestepping every tough issue that comes their way. So, the question isn’t whether or not you’ll have a bad boss. Rather, it’s how you’ll respond when you do.

Faced with a bad boss, many managers retreat to commiserating with co-workers or adopt a passive “this too shall pass” attitude. Or in the case of an extremely bad boss relationship, they are driven to jump ship to take a job with another company — often with negative consequences.

Your starting point in dealing with a bad boss is confronting some important realities. First, your boss, regardless of whether she is effective or not, is a major factor in your ability to perform well in your job, and she plays a key role in shaping senior executives’ perceptions of your performance and career potential. Second, in most organizations it’s difficult if not impossible for a subordinate to dislodge a boss in the short term. Frequently, if you do some digging, you’ll find that your manager has some special ability his manager values — for example, a close relationship with a key customer or specific expertise that the boss lacks. As a result, rather than get demoralized or seek comfort from peers in your misery, it’s better to take steps to try to address the situation proactively.

Start by doing some diagnostic work. What are your boss’s goals and interests? What does he value? A sense of urgency, attention to detail, getting everyone on board before advancing a proposed initiative? How does he take in and process information: reading, verbal updates, fact-based analysis? How does he make decisions: analytically or based on the endorsement of trusted lieutenants? What issues is he vitally interested in — and which is he prepared to delegate to you with only periodic updates? By helping your boss achieve his goals and communicating actively on those issues he cares about — and doing so in his preferred style — you can begin to build the boss’s confidence and make an imperfect relationship acceptable for the period of time you report to him. Also, try to identify your boss’s base of knowledge and expertise and convey a desire to learn from him. Often when a boss feels valued and confident that he is receiving all of the information he feels necessary to do his job, the seeds of a more positive relationship are sown.

Clearly, however, these tactics aren’t foolproof — and in some cases you may need to try to engineer a move to a new position within your organization. As you do, make sure your boss knows about your career goals and the career discussions you’ve had with other executives in the past. Your boss may or may not agree with your career goals. However, informing your boss about past career conversations makes it easier for you to set up meetings with other executives with whom you have a relationship since it won’t seem like you’re going around her. In such meetings be professional, but let the executives know that you’d be interested in pursuing a new assignment — sooner rather than later. In those conversations listen for any information that might shed light on your boss’s actions and give you a sense of whether her behavior is temporary or well-ingrained.

For example, your boss may be on the hot seat with her boss or on edge about an impending reorganization. Unless you know an executive very well, be careful not to criticize your boss directly. However, if you’ve reached the point where you either need to find a new manager or leave the company, let your tone convey your strong desire to move to a new assignment. If you are a high-performer the company wants to retain, an uptick in your sense of urgency to find a new role may well signal to other executives that it’s time to intervene.

Dealing with a bad boss can be one of the most nerve-wracking events of your career. However, you can learn from the experience. In their landmark study, The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job, Morgan McCall, Mike Lombardo, and Ann Morrison found that having a bad boss was actually one of a future leader’s most formative developmental experiences since those leaders were able to identify the ways they didn’t want to manage. Beyond that, the techniques described for building a relationship with a bad boss (focusing on the manager’s goals and values; deciphering how he processes information and makes decisions) can also be applied to forging more productive working relationships with peers you need to work with inside your company’s matrix organization.

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