Help! My Manager Sucks

Bad managers abound, and working for one can make you feel like your career's doomed. But it's not—if you follow this four-point plan.

Let’s pretend, hypothetically, that you report to a manager who falls short of ideal. Perhaps he (or she) undermines your efforts, micromanages, only notices what’s wrong, doesn’t walk the talk, vanishes into thin air, takes credit for your work, has vague expectations, doesn’t communicate, criticizes you in public, and expects you to do the work of a small nation.

Are you doomed? You are not.

The first step in dealing with a manager who doesn’t manage is letting go of the futile hope that he will change. This is a big step. Do yourself a favor and stop banging your head against the wall. It is astounding how much effort is poured down the drain by wishing someone else would change her (or his) personality and overcome all her shortcomings. You cannot fundamentally change your manager.

All you can do is manage yourself.

In fact, you only directly control three things in the entire world. Interestingly, none of these are other people. You are in charge of your thoughts, your words, and your actions. That’s it. Most of us neglect these three key items, however. Instead we direct our precious, limited energy on thinking and talking about how others should be different. This is fruitless and even lazy. As long as I’m focused on what’s wrong with you, I don’t need to pay any attention to improving me.

Focus on you. Rather than hoping you can mysteriously change the fundamental personality traits of those around you, direct your energy on perfecting your own sweet self.

Once you accept that your manager’s innate temperament won’t change, think about how you can improve the situation. For example, let’s say you wish your manager would be clearer about your deadlines and deliverables. What can you do about clarifying deadlines and deliverables? Perhaps schedule a meeting to review project priorities, follow up with an email summary, and provide weekly progress reports.

What if you believe your manager has no idea what you are accomplishing? How about creating quarterly one-page bullet point summaries highlighting your key accomplishments and outcomes?

Let’s say you never get any positive reinforcement or praise for your hard work. This is a widespread phenomenon. In this case, you might need to learn to let go of the need for regular, external commendation. Replace that with internal acknowledgement—and make sure you give plenty of meaningful, supportive feedback to your own direct reports.

What if your manager makes you more than miserable? Perhaps there is borderline abuse or ethical issues. In these cases, you have two choices, and neither includes hanging in there. One is to approach HR to either change the reporting structure or have the manager removed. The other is to find another job. If you find yourself in a truly toxic situation, you owe it to yourself to change your situation. Again, you’re in control of your own life. Knowing when to take action is just as important as knowing how to accept—and work with—others’ shortcomings.

—Devora Zack, CEO of Only Connect Consulting, is the author of Managing for People Who Hate Managing (2012) and Networking for People Who Hate Networking (2010). Her books are translated into 12 languages and have been featured globally on ABC, The Wall Street Journal, Fox, CNBC, USA Today, Cosmo International, Oprah.com, SiriusXM, Forbes, and dozens other publications and media channels.

[Image: Flickr user Peter Stinson]

Add New Comment

10 Comments

  • Mr. Ketter

    You have to realize that the original word for manager was manwithanger. They shortened it in the late 1800s. This was only after the suffragettes fought to include the work womanwithanger. But to this very day most managers still uphold the 1800s manwithanger credo: hire em fire em or whip em till they quit. I have found them to be afraid of three things: fire, bright lights and discrimination law suits. So choose your weapon wisely.

  • André Amaral

    Doesn't this piece have a fundamental conceptual flaw? If it's stating that your manager won't change, than what makes it right to say that you can? Manager and employees are both humans, working in the same environment, under the same company.

  • Liz R

    Thanks for a great article Devora - it really is true that we spend so much wasted energy on trying to change others, rather than concentrating on what we can control and where we CAN have an influence or change things.

    Awesome writing style too!

  • Rhonda

    I lost my job this year due to these problems with my manager. Sadly I find myself still out of work. Never got any support from his boss either (even though I worked there for 6 years with no problems in the past) except that I could have my job back under the same manager. When I asked about the problems in the past I was told to do what he said or leave. Nice attitude! Oh well I will find a job (seasonal) next spring and hopefully it will be with a manager with people skills.

  • Errol Smith

    Hi Rhonda, I'm afraid that life is different. I've always taught (after I learnt this lesson myself) that, if you cannot work under/for a "bad" manager, you're not learning anything worthwhile. If you resign (or get fired) because of that, at the next job you'll find the same kind of person waiting to spoil your day. What I've done in tha past in real situations, is to first check if the problem was with me. For that I would check with other coworkers and made sure I got a balanced view. If the problem was caused by me, I do what I can to change. If the problem is/was not with me, I sit down and try to work out a strategy of how I was going to go about my daily job in such a way as to "accommodate" this "bad" boss. You'll be amazed at how much you learn about yourself and then also about how to deal with such situations. It has NEVER failed me yet and I now coach business owners/leader and supervisors (and my own children) on how to best work through such situations.
    I find that, if I'm not willing and able to change, then I should not be so judgemental as to expect others to change just because I think they should.
    Try it and have some fun.

  • Rhonda

    The problem was not with my work, it was that I was never allowed to do it. He gave me every other job to do, which I didn't mind, everyone likes a change now and then, however my primary duty was ignored to the point of people complaining that it was not getting done. Co-workers also mentioned that this was becoming a problem because it was affecting the jobs that they were told to do to no avail. Ah well needless to say the firing has continued to the point of there being only one original employee still there (related to another manager). We ALL bent over backwards to try make his transition to this new job (for him) as easy as possible. Too bad that a combined history of more than 20 years of experience was not wanted by him and totally wrong. We were all taught these jobs by a person who is only 1 of 20  experts in the country now, but I suppose that this has no bearing on our abilities at all. Oh to heck with him, I know I WILL find a job, and I also know that it will be done correctly, and be appreciated by my new manager.

  • DVisMe

    While this is a solid article and good start towards managing a bad manger, it's not nearly proactive enough. Studies have shown that the best way to deal with a bad manager is to become a worse manager yourself, and thereby usurp both their position — and more importantly — power. I can show you how to do just that in 23 easy lessons. GetHorrible.com.

  • Roberta Matuson

    Great piece Devora. In my book, Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around (Nicholas Brealey, 2011) I talk about how critical it is to manage your boss. If you don't do so, you won't have to worry about managing down!

    Roberta Matuson
    www.matusonconsulting.com