In stark contrast, a bad boss can just about kill you.
Not literally of course, but a bad boss can kill that part of your soul where positive energy, commitment, and hope come from. On a daily basis, a bad boss can leave you feeling angry, hurt, and bitter—even physically ill.
If you’re like most people, over the course of a forty-something-year career, you will have a handful of great bosses, many more that are pretty good, and one or two total jerks—people who are so consistently awful they make you want to throw it in and quit.
Bad bosses come in every variety. Some grab all the credit, some are incompetent, some kiss up but kick down; others bully and humiliate, have mood swings, withhold praise and money, break promises, or play favorites.
Occasionally, there are bad bosses who display several of these characteristics all at once.
How do these people ever get ahead?
Well, sometimes they happen to be very talented. They deliver the numbers or they’re extremely creative. They can have shrewd political alliances or maybe even a family member in high places.
Bad bosses, incidentally, tend to have longer lives in some industries rather than others. Top moneymakers are often thought of as irreplaceable, and they know it, making some of them even more insufferable.
The world has jerks. Some of them get to be bosses.
In any bad boss situation, you cannot let yourself be a victim.
I realize that a bad boss may make you want to bitch and moan to your coworkers, whine to your family, punch a wall, or watch too much TV with a drink in your hand. He/she may make you want to surf the Web or call headhunters, looking for jobs anywhere but where you are.
All in all, he/she may end up making you want to feel very sorry for yourself.
In any business situation, seeing yourself as a victim is completely self-defeating. And when it comes to your career, it’s an attitude that kills all your options—it can even be the start of a career death spiral. I have and know off people who bounced from one crummy job to another after a falling out with his bad boss and quit in a huff. Out in the market, with no recommendations, all you have was an “I was screwed” story of woe to tell prospective employers.
Obviously, you shouldn’t always stay with a bad boss. Sometimes you need to get out. Regardless of your decision, avoid the pervasive victim mentality. You know what I mean. We live in a culture where parents sue fast-food restaurants for making their kids fat and cities spend millions of dollars a year to settle claims for injuries caused by uneven sidewalks and potholes.
Like every other unfortunate or unfair event that befalls you in life, working for a difficult boss is your problem and you must solve it.
To do that, ask yourself the following series of questions. The answers will help you navigate what is undeniably a painful situation. Painful—but yours to accept, fix, or end.
The first question is:
Why is my boss acting like a jerk? Sometimes the answer to this question is a no-brainer. Your boss is acting like a jerk because that’s the way he/she is. He may be fine with customers and fairly reasonable with his own bosses and peers, but he treats everyone below him with the same kind of bad behavior—be it in the form of intimidation, belligerence, arrogance, neglect, secrecy, or sarcasm.
It is an entirely different situation if your boss is just impossible toward you.
In that case, you need to start asking yourself what you have done to draw his disapproval. That’s right—you need to ask yourself if you are the cause of your boss’s behavior. Generally speaking, bosses are not awful to people whom they like, respect, and need. If your boss is being negative to you—and mainly you—you can feel pretty confident that he has his version of events, and his version concerns your attitude or performance.
You’ve got to find out what’s going on.
Start by asking yourself that question, but know that self-assessment is difficult, to put it mildly. Even with a huge amount of maturity and a cast-iron stomach, it is hard to see yourself as others do.
As you conduct what is an admittedly difficult “mirror test.” Think hard about your performance, and press yourself for the ways you may have fallen short. Think about why your colleagues might not consider you a team player. In a state of forced self-loathing, gauge your personal productivity, your face time in the office, your contribution to sales and earnings. Maybe you open a lot of deals but never close them. Maybe you close a lot of deals but boast too much. Maybe people weren’t really “OK with it” when you blew a big account a few months back.
Finally, face into your attitude toward authority, because it just might be that the source of your problem with your boss is that you are, at your core, a boss hater.
Boss haters are a real breed. It doesn’t make any difference who these people work for, they go into any authority relationship with barely repressed cynicism. Who knows why—upbringing, experiences at work or home, political bent. It doesn’t really matter. Boss haters usually exude constant low-level negativity toward “the system,” and when they do, their bosses feel it, and they return the favor.
Maybe you’re comfortable with authority, and the rest of your self-examination has you coming up empty-handed too. Now what?
It’s time to find out what your boss is thinking.
Any kind of confrontation, however, is incredibly risky. Your boss may be waiting for just such a moment to dump you. In fact, he may have been hoping his negative vibes would eventually inch you into his office with the question, “So what am I doing wrong?” so that he can answer, “Too much for this to go on any longer.”
Still, you have to talk. There is no way around it. Just remember, before you go into that meeting, be prepared and have options in the event that you come out of it unemployed.
Then, go do it. Don’t be defensive. Remember, your goal is to uncover something your boss has not been able to explicitly tell you for whatever reason. Maybe he’s conflict averse or he’s just been too busy. Regardless, your objective is to extract from him the problem he has with your attitude or performance.
If you’re lucky, your boss will come clean about your shortcomings, and together, you can work on a plan to correct them and get your performance or attitude back on track. Ideally, as you give it your all to improve, his attitude toward you will as well.
Ironically, you are less lucky if you find out that your bad boss is satisfied with your performance. If that’s the case, he is being awful simply because he doesn’t particularly like you.
Which puts you in the same position as the people who work for bad bosses who act the same way…just because that’s the way they are.
For all of you, the next question is:
What’s the endgame for my boss? Sometimes it’s obvious that a bad boss is on the way out. His own bosses have signaled as much to the organization; or he himself makes it clear he can’t wait to move on. In either case, survival is just a waiting game. Deliver strong results and have a can-do approach until relief arrives.
You are in a different boat if your bad boss is not going anywhere anytime soon.
You may not work at a company that lets a bad boss hang around until a mess erupts. But it’s possible great numbers will keep your bad boss around indefinitely.
If you feel that’s the case, your next question should be:
What will happen to me if I deliver results and endure my bad boss? If you think that your organization, and in particular your boss’s boss or someone in HR, understands your bind and sympathizes, you should feel pretty confident that eventually you will be moved up or sideways as a reward for surviving. While you’re waiting, hang in there and give the job your all.
But be careful. Uncertainty about the final outcome can make you do something foolish—that is, pull an end run. You may feel the impulse to sneak upstairs and talk to your boss’s boss about the situation. That can be suicide. About 90 percent of the time, complaining about a bad boss to his boss circles right around to bite you on the rear. The big boss may have your best interests at heart when he scolds your boss for his behavior, but you can be absolutely sure that your life will only become more unpleasant afterward. There is a reason why kids don’t tattle on bullies. Unfortunately, the same principle applies in the office.
There will always be an element of uncertainty to enduring a bad boss. You may surmise a happy ending or be promised one. But there are very few guarantees. All you know for certain in this kind of situation is that going to work every day isn’t fun.
Which is why you need to ask the following:
Why do I work here anyway? It is rare for a job to be perfect in every way. Sometimes you stay in a job for the money or the friends; sometimes you give up money and friends for the love of the work itself or the job’s location or its lack of travel. Sometimes you stay in a job because the company has so much prestige, you know it will help you get a new job once you have a few more years of experience under your belt.
When you find yourself in a situation with a bad boss that isn’t going to change anytime soon, you need to assess your trade-offs and ask, “Are they worth it?”
If the answer to this question is no, then start constructing an exit plan that gets you out the door with as little damage as possible.
On the other hand, if your boss situation offers some kind of long-term benefit that you understand and accept, you really have no choice. Focus on why you are staying, and put your bad boss in perspective. He/she isn’t everything in your life—he is the one downside of a career or life deal you have made with yourself.
More than anything else, come to grips with the fact that you are staying with a bad boss by choice. That means you’ve forfeited your right to complain.
You can’t consider yourself a victim anymore.
When you own your choices, you own their consequences.
In a perfect world, all bosses would be perfect.
That happens so infrequently that entire movies and books are written about bad bosses, not to mention lots of country-and-western songs.
When you get a bad boss, first find out if you are the problem. That’s not easy, but in many cases, a bad boss is just a disappointed one.
If you’re convinced you aren’t the problem, ask yourself if your company is likely to keep a bad boss with good results. If the answer is yes, the only thing left to do is look at the trade-offs you are willing to make. Is your job worth the price of enduring a bad boss? If so, put up and shut up, to put a twist on the old saying.
If the trade-off is not worth it, leave gracefully.
And as you start your next job, remember exactly what made the bad boss bad and how it made you feel—so that when the time comes for you to be a boss, you won’t do the same.