How to Handle a Bad Boss
Garbled instructions, unclear goals, the slight-to-severe whiff of ‘WTF?’ that clouds all your interactions--all signs point to a bad boss. So how to make sure her management failings don’t bring you down too? Suck it up and stay quiet while you plan your exit? Or speak to higher-ups about the situation?
“How you handle it could determine your future, even beyond your present job,” says Anne Loehr, founder of the Washington D.C.-based leadership development firm Anne Loehr & Associates. The good news is: It’s possible to get around a bad boss. Here are 5 steps to consider if you think your boss may be holding you back.
Commit or quit.
It might seem paradoxical to make this decision the first step, but in order to move forward, you need to choose a direction, says Loehr. “If the boss is bad, often what happens is people just hang around in limbo and complain,” says Loehr. “But that’s how even a good employee can become a problem employee. So either commit that you’re going to figure out a workaround and manage up—even if it’s uncomfortable—or make a plan that this is not where you want to be and steadily work to get out.” Loehr’s preference is for trying to work things out—“I would never tell someone to quit their job right off the bat,” she says—but more important is simply choosing a direction, even if you decide to change it down the road.
Get a second opinion.
Your next step is to talk to someone inside or outside the company—a mentor, a peer, a colleague, or someone else you trust—about what you’re seeing around you. “This is partly just to get it out because it will make you feel better,” Loehr says. “But also to check in. Say, ‘Am I the only one who’s seeing this?’ If you’re not, then ask, ‘What would you do in this situation?’ Basically, you’re trying to get the pulse of the situation so you can get more clarity.” Don’t mistake this for complaining above your boss’s head, however, which can be “a recipe for disaster,” says Julian Birkinshaw, professor at London Business School and author of the forthcoming “Becoming a Better Boss: Why Good Management is So Difficult.” “It is likely to be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the boss, accelerating his departure. And it potentially marks you out as a muckraker, even though your intentions are honorable.”
Connect with colleagues.
“I always recommend that you reach out across the company whether your boss is good or bad,” Loehr says. “You have to be a networker extraordinaire. Get to know people in other departments. Have lunch once a week with someone you don’t know. This is also a good way to get tips from other people, ‘Oh, yeah, I worked with your boss three years ago and here’s what I did to manage up.’” Make sure you start your outreach laterally, with your peers and co-workers: “You don’t want to ever go up first,” warns Loehr. “There’s plenty of room to go sideways, and from there, you’ll start to learn who’s got influence and who’s most approachable.”
Clarify goals and roles.
“One thing that poor managers have in common is that they tend not to align the organizational vision and mission to the responsibilities of teams and individuals, so individuals don’t know what the purpose of their work is or how they influence the larger picture,” says Loehr.
Not knowing can hurt your prospects--you may be focusing your attention on projects with little visibility and impact on the company, for example. So sit down with your boss and try to get clarity around that. The key is to avoid being accusatory in your approach, says consultant Debra Howard, founder of Debra Howard Consulting and a 20-year veteran of human resource management. “Use ‘I've noticed that...,’ ‘I'm wondering about...,’ and ‘I'm curious about...’ as conversation openers,” she suggests. “Give her the benefit of the doubt.”
You can also try to figure out what you can do to help your boss out, says Birkinshaw. “ If he has too much on his plate, say, you may be able to provide some relief.” (That could be an opportunity for you to demonstrate your value and expertise to higher-ups in the company too.)
Enlist a partner to hold you accountable.
“You need to hold yourself accountable to the changes you need to make, and for that you need to someone to help you through it,” says Loehr. She suggests setting up regular check-ins with a partner. “Your boss is not going to change. So you need to take action. If you don’t have someone helping you be accountable, you might not hold yourself accountable either, and then you’re back to limbo land.”