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How To Handle The Four Most Common Types Of Bad Bosses

Working for a bad boss doesn’t need to be a nightmare. Here’s how to “manage up.”

How To Handle The Four Most Common Types Of Bad Bosses
[Photos: Confused Woman, Daydreaming, Trendsetter, Judgmental via Shutterstock]

There are good bosses and bad bosses, and too many of us get stuck with the latter. And while it can be tough going to work for a difficult manager, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Before you start looking for a new job, there are some techniques you can use to “manage up” and modify some of your bad boss’s most frustrating behaviors. There are four common types of bad bosses, and they each take a slightly different approach.

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1. The Overbearing Boss

Some managers intimidate those around them with their domineering attitudes. They take the reigns at team meetings and in other collaborative environments, making it impossible for real teamwork to occur–and all in the name of ostensibly speeding things along. This type of boss may not mean to get in the way, but they do all the same. Here’s what to do:

Go “round robin”: If you sense others may be put off from contributing because of your boss’s overbearing nature, suggest a “round-robin” approach any time your team gets together to work on a joint project. This way everyone can get equal time to share their thoughts. And start at the opposite end of the table of where your manager is sitting so their input comes last.

Stand up: To take back a measure of control in group settings, simply get on your feet. Whenever you stand while everyone else is seated, you immediately regain control of the conversation.

Underscore others’ ideas: Whenever someone else on your team voices their opinion, reiterate it in your own words and write it down so they can be sure it’s been noted. A domineering boss can bulldoze others’ ideas with their own, so a team member who advocates for others can help balance things out. After you’ve underscored a colleague’s point, try to pivot to someone else to get another idea before your boss dives back in.

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2. The Unrealistic Boss

It’s good to be an ambitious manager who challenges employees and sets lofty goals. It’s quite another to set unreasonable expectations without offering the guidance or resources to accomplish them. As an employee of an unrealistic boss, there are a few things you can do:

Distinguish wants from needs: Don’t tell your supervisor point-blank that their expectations are too high. Instead, propose alternatives to their requests that are no less serviceable in the given situation yet easier to achieve. Sometimes a manager with too-grand plans will ask for a Porsche when a skateboard will do, and you just need to prove that it will.

Point out costs and risks: If a certain project will cost the company $3 million, create huge potential liabilities, or sideline other key projects, it’s important to voice those concerns–backed up by facts and hard research–sooner rather than later. Sometimes an unrealistic boss is under pressure from upper management to deliver the moon and ends up passing on those outsize objectives to their teams. If you can lay out the likely costs and risks associated with those ventures, it can help bring them back down to Earth–and give them material with which to renegotiate expectations with senior managers.

Ask pointed questions: It often comes across as much less threatening when you point out concerns through strategic questioning. If you have reservations about anything from a strategy idea to workload issues, pose them in the form of a question.

3. The Indecisive Boss

Maybe your manager is never quite sure what they’re looking for but still holds you and your colleagues responsible when they don’t get it. Here’s what you can do:

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Get clarity early and often: It takes a proactive approach, but identifying items within the scope of a project as well as those that lie outside it can help keep everything on track. If you’re worried about the boundaries shifting over the course of events, keep going back to your boss periodically to make sure you still agree on what’s expected–from deliverables and budget restrictions, to the key roles and responsibilities of everyone on your team who’s involved.

Ask your boss to prioritize: Have your boss rank the key aspects of your tasks and projects by importance. This way you can show your boss that while you understand everything they expect from you matters, you’re being savvy about how to use your time to accomplish them.

Define success: If your boss isn’t sure what they want, just press them to think in terms of end results. Ask them to finish this sentence: I will consider this initiative a success if . . . “

4. The Boneheaded Boss

Let’s face it: There are some managers out there who simply think their ideas are better than they are. If you find yourself working for a boss who keeps putting forth bad ideas and making poor decisions, there are a few things you can do without causing outright conflict.

Get permission to be honest: You have to do this early on in your working relationship, otherwise it’s much harder to do later. But if you establish open lines of communication that let you express a differing opinion respectfully, you’ll be on a good footing. Ask your boss how they want you to handle it when you disagree with an idea or decision. Not all employees feel comfortable doing that, but it shows a measure of honesty and commitment to the team’s goals that transcends the personal. Even rather boneheaded bosses can often appreciate a team member’s candor, so use this as an opportunity to share feedback, even though they can override it.

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Vet all ideas early: Assume the role of lead researcher on your team. Take charge of vetting all ideas and approaches right from the get-go, no matter whose they are, then bring empirical information back to the group in order to point out any complications you foresee further down the road.

Jump from sinking ships: You don’t want to be on a sinking vessel. While it’s important to support your team and show commitment, you also need to look out for your own career. Keep developing a broad professional network, and hash out a plan B in case the boss with the bad ideas is demoted or let go.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is president of Professionalism Matters, Inc., a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta.

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