Whenever I ask managers and business leaders about their most pressing problems at work, I’ve been a bit surprised to hear from so many who say they are struggling with a “bad boss” or a hopelessly toxic work environment.
A bad boss is a big problem, and not easily fixed. In fact, front-line leaders are the primary drivers of employee engagement (or lack thereof) and apparently there are a lot more of them out there than I realized. If you are working for a bad boss I suggest you try these tactics over a three- to six-month period.
1) Make sure you aren’t the one with the problem.
Have you always thought your boss was an idiot no matter where you worked? Do your teammates seem to think the boss is OK? Any chance you have unrealistic demands? Or maybe the boss slighted you years ago but you’re holding onto that grudge like a dog on a bone? Are you negative all the time, about everybody? Don’t let this possibility insult you. Take a deep breath and really think about it. If you’re sure it’s not you, move on to step number 2.
2) Realize that your boss is human, and imperfect.
Similar to step one, make sure you don’t just need to give your boss a break. Kind of like what we need to do for our parents after we grow up. We need to realize that people become bosses and don’t always get the training or coaching they need to succeed. They, too, have demands, pressures, to-do lists, and maybe even their own bad boss. They make mistakes sometimes. (Don’t you?)
Observe your boss for a few days and try to notice how many things she does well versus poorly. When she is doing something “bad” try to imagine the most forgiving reason why it could have occurred. Is it truly her fault, or could it be something out of her control? Be mindful in this way for a week, and if you still think you work for jerk, move on to step 3.
3) Coach up.
Don’t accept that the boss has all the control, all the power, and all the responsibility. View your job, and her job, as a shared accountability. Ideally you can muster the professional courage to ask for a meeting to talk about “your job” and performance. In the meeting explain what parts of your job are going well and are enriching, and how you think things could go better. Use innocent questions as a form of behavioral suggestions, like so:
- “One area that I still struggle with is month-end reporting. I’m trying my best but I think if I could get the XYZ report earlier it would help me to produce a quality report in less time. Do you think I could get that document earlier?”
- “I just wanted to follow up on that item that came up a couple months ago. As we had discussed, I’d be much more efficient with that widget for my computer. Did that request ever go in…have you heard anything about it? I don’t mind following up on it myself…want me to call David for the request?”
- “I know the Diamond Project is very important and you want to make sure it’s done right, but the detailed nature of your instructions and questions makes me think you might not have confidence in me. Can I confirm the end result you’re looking for and maybe let’s see if I can run with it on my own for a few days? I’ll definitely shout for help when I need it.”
4) Focus on the positive.
If your boss just isn’t coachable, and just isn’t improving, then think about all the positive aspects of your job. Are you learning new things? Do you like your coworkers? Does it give you a flexibility you need to take care of kids or personal items? Are you paid a lot of money? Hopefully the good elements of your job outweigh the bad boss behaviors, and you can get personal daily engagement by recognizing these other blessings. If the good doesn’t outweigh the bad, read on.
5) Wait him/her out.
If your situation is just irreconcilable, can you just wait for your boss to move on, or for you to move to another position that reports to someone else? In large or fast-growing companies, it’s not uncommon for people to get a new boss every year or two. If this is your environment, your strategy should be to grin and bear it and realize that this too shall pass. If, however, you are in a small businesses or a company with little growth, a wait-it-out approach might not be possible. In this case, there is only one option left.
If all else fails, you have to quit. For the sake of your mental and physical health, and for the sake of your friends and family, you have to find a new job. The truth is that if you’ve been working for a bad boss for long, you probably aren’t in a position to get a better job. I hate to be so direct, but great talent always has options, and usually doesn’t work for a bad boss. This is the key point: You have to be the CEO of your own career–you have to be mindful of your career. Not just when you get a bad boss, but always. In good times and in bad you need to be doing the things necessary to give you career options. As the saying goes, “Dig your well before you’re thirsty.” Always be learning, networking, planning, looking, and building your personal brand.