How To Deal With a Bad Boss
There’s a common saying in the career advice world: people don’t leave jobs or companies – they leave managers. In many surveys, bad bosses are the No. 1 reason why workers leave their jobs.
Regardless of your job title, industry, or geographic location, at some point in your career, you’re likely to run into a not-so-great manager. The question is: what to do about it? The answer depends on the precise type of bad boss you’re dealing with, as well as the circumstances involved.
7 Steps for Dealing With a Bad Boss
Whether you’re suffering from uninspiring leadership or coping with an outright bully, these steps will help you keep your career on track:
1. Identify the problem.
Not all bad bosses are created equally, and understanding the precise nature of the problem is essential to developing your strategy. Are you dealing with an underminer, a bully, or someone who’s been promoted without receiving management training? Your next steps will depend on knowing exactly what you’re dealing with.
Bullies, underminers, and bosses who take credit for your work all require focusing on good boundaries … and not giving them ammunition to use against you. (In other words, don’t use company computers or messaging systems to complain about your boss – it will get back to them.) Ultimately, these toxic bosses are best dealt with by removing yourself from the situation. Anything else you do is a stop-gap while you arrange for a transfer or find a new job.
Managers who are disorganized, weak, inexperienced, or under-supported by their own managers are a bit easier to deal with. In these cases, you have to manage up by being proactive about communication.
It’s even a good idea to ask outright about their preferences in this regard. Do they prefer to talk via email or phone, weekly one-on-ones or monthly meetings? Don’t assume that they’ll tell you what they want without prompting. Be careful though, there are some things you should never say to your boss.
More: How To Get the Boss on Your Side
3. Do some soul-searching.
Ask any marriage counselor and they’ll tell you: when relationships break down, it’s rarely 100% the fault of one partner or the other. It might sound strange to think yourself as being in a relationship with your boss, but in a professional sense, you are.
That doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for your abusive boss’s attacks or your scatterbrained boss’s forgetfulness. But it does mean evaluating your own behavior for anything you might be doing to contribute to the communication breakdown. For instance, if you’ve had trouble connecting on issues, it’s normal to feel resistant to any idea coming from a boss you don’t like – but it’s not productive to dig in your heels without hearing them out.
3. Document everything.
As a general rule, you shouldn’t involve HR in these situations until you’re prepared to have them solve your problem … even if you don’t love the solution. HR is best for dealing with extreme problems with legal consequences, such as harassment or discrimination. Beyond that, you’re probably better off involving them only when you’re looking to transfer to another department (or when you need information about your benefits, etc., during the normal course of work).
That said, it’s a good idea to document everything, just in case the situation escalates. Get in the habit of making a note of problematic interactions, and date each incident. Hopefully, you’ll never have to show your notes to anyone. But if you do, you’ll be prepared.
4. Vent cautiously.
Having friends at work is the greatest—it makes work more fun and boost productivity into the bargain. But work friends are still, well, work friends. Don’t tell your colleagues anything you wouldn’t print out and hang over your desk or wear on a t-shirt to the company picnic.
More: 5 Things Never to Say About Your Boss
5. Look for lateral moves.
If you’re stuck in a truly horrible boss situation, you might think that your options are either to put up with things or move on to another company. But if you’re working at a company with more than one department or team, you might have another option: transfer and work under a new boss.
Get in the habit of checking internal job postings on a regular basis, and start networking internally, to make sure you’ll hear about jobs as they become available – and possibly even before! It’s easy to fall into the trap of only socializing with your direct coworkers. Extend yourself a little, and you can network your way out this problem without even rolling over your 401(k).
6. Think about moving on.
If nothing else works, and there’s nowhere else for you to go, it’s time to look for a new job. The sad fact of the matter is that this is often the best solution for a bad boss situation. No matter how good a communicator you are, and how diligently you work to improve the relationship, you probably don’t have the pull necessary to make your boss behave. That’s not a failure on your part. It’s just reality.
7. Learn from the experience.
The best bosses are the ones who’ve dealt with the worst bosses in their career, and made a mental note not to repeat those mistakes when they become managers themselves. In this day and age, few companies devote resources to training managers to be effective. If you want to shine as a leader, you’ll have to commit to leveling up on your own.