If you and your boss disagree over a course of action but share a solid working relationship, you might be able to respectfully make your case by presenting data and engaging your boss in debate. However, what if your problem with your boss is more serious, resulting from repeated clashes rather than a onetime disagreement? In other words, what if you work for a bad boss?
The answer is that you need to take the initiative in solving the problem, because your boss almost certainly won't. Here are a few types of bad bosses and suggestions on how to react to each of them.
A micromanager plays an overly large role in the projects of his or her subordinates. Instead of letting them use their own judgment, the boss makes every decision or dictates every step to take. This can be especially frustrating to capable workers, turning an interesting task into boring grunt work.
If you think your boss is a micromanager, first make sure that he or she isn't merely responding to your own poor performance. If you have shown that you cannot perform good work without heavyhanded supervision, your boss may feel that he or she has to constantly look over your shoulder. In that event, try to regain your boss's confidence through a small project. When a relatively unimportant project comes up, ask your boss to grant you additional responsibility "just this once." If he or she agrees, put forth extraordinary effort to ensure that the project exceeds expectations.
If your boss micromanages your entire team, you can be confident that it's not just you. Your next step should be to sit down with your boss and talk about his or her overbearing supervision. Admittedly, initiating such a discussion is a difficult task. You may fear that your boss will take your criticism as an attack or otherwise identify you as an "enemy." Many micromanagers aren't fully self aware; they don't realize how intrusive their actions are. In my experience, bosses like these often respond well to constructive criticism from their subordinates.
After having this discussion, try to ease your boss away from his or her micromanaging tendencies. Many micromanagers have an underlying fear that something will go wrong if anyone is given managerial discretion. You can address this fear by frequently sharing information throughout the course of a project. Don't wait for your boss to ask how things are going; instead, send a daily email with status reports and next steps. This helps reassure your boss that, in fact, everything is under control.
Some managers are on the other end of the spectrum. Instead of micromanaging their subordinates' projects, they fail to give any directions at all. In an extreme case, their subordinates may feel that their boss is ignoring them. As a result, they feel that they have to guess what their bosses want.
To fix this problem, you'll have to be very assertive to get your boss's attention. If you receive an assignment with unclear goals, ask for clarification right then and there. Don't leave your boss's office or hang up the phone until you are satisfied that you know what you need to do.
During the course of the project, you should also communicate more frequently with your boss. For instance, if you send your boss a key email every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 4 p.m., he or she will know that it's important—and be more likely to respond to it. If that doesn't work, try to speak face to face with your boss about getting more direction. Be specific about what you need and how your boss can be helpful. If your boss still ignores you at this point, look elsewhere in the organization for mentors who can provide you with some form of guidance.
A boss who gets angry and abuses his or her workers is probably the worst type of "bad boss." By yelling at or otherwise belittling his or her employees, an abusive boss fosters an environment of fear. There is no excuse for this behavior—yet abusive bosses can be found in all sorts of organizations.
The only way to deal with an abusive boss is not to take personally the fact that he or she regularly loses self control. The boss's unacceptable behavior has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with his or her own problems, which you can't fix.
Nevertheless, your behavior may unwittingly push your boss's "hot buttons" and trigger a stream of abuse. If you want to stick it out with such a boss, try to identify what those triggers are. Does your boss go ballistic if you arrive five minutes late or if your desk is slightly messy? If so, the simplest solution is to avoid behaviors that invite your boss's wrath.
But this strategy won't work if your boss plays the blame game and gets angry whenever a project turns sour. You can try to explain the key causes and suggest how you will address them in the future. You can try to brush off abusive behavior with a joke—as the comedian Bill Cosby said, "If you can laugh at it, you can survive it." But if you stop laughing after repeated incidents, you should have a frank discussion with your boss about his or her behavior.
If you're lucky, your boss will not be aware of how outrageously he or she is acting. If you provide calm, constructive feedback, your boss might have an epiphany and change his or her ways. Unfortunately, many abusive bosses know exactly what they're doing. They'll push and push until they meet resistance, at which point they're likely to retreat. The only way to succeed with such a boss is to stand your ground. Insist that your boss treat you with respect. Be specific about how his or her abusive behavior is affecting your work and which particular actions are intolerable. But whatever you do, keep your cool; nothing good can come from a yelling match.
From the book EXTREME PRODUCTIVITY: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours by Robert C. Pozen. Copyright © 2012 by Robert C. Pozen. Reprinted courtesy of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
What else makes for a bad boss? And how do you deal with them?
[Image: Flickr user Gary Martin]