Want to deal with a bad boss? First, stop complaining. Unless your boss breaks the law, you don't have a bad boss, you have a boss you are managing poorly. Pick on your boss all you want, but if you were a top employee you wouldn't let your boss's problems bring you down.

Everyone has something to offer. Find that in your boss and focus on learning everything you can. Or leave. The good news is that in most cases, you don't have to leave. You just need to manage your relationship with your boss with more empathy, more distance, and more strategy.

Overcome incompetent skills by leveraging others
My favorite example of a bad boss is one I had at a software company who refused to learn how to use a computer. I conducted most communication with him via phone, and when other people didn't, I often played the role of secretary even though I was a vice president. He once said to me, “You're such a fast typist!” And I thought, “You're such an incompetent, lazy idiot.”

But in truth, he was not. He was a top negotiator of government contracts. I stepped back and recognized that he was overwhelmed with the prospect of changing the way he had been working for 20 years, and I was in a position to help him. I found that the more dependent he was on me for email the more I was able to insert myself into high-level deals that he would not otherwise have let me in on. I helped him avoid having to change, and he taught me how to be a dealmaker.

Overcome moral incompetence by knowing your boundaries
After a few big deals, I thought we had hit our groove, when I realized that this same man was having an affair with my sales manager. For months he grumbled that she was terrible, and I should fire her. Then he announced she needed more responsibilities. I should have sensed something was up, but I didn't. Then she dumped him with great fanfare and I found myself sitting awkwardly between them in many meetings.

Sure, I lost a lot of respect for them both, and it was a pain to manage the sales person after that. But the awkward situation didn't mean that I couldn't learn a lot from my boss. And it didn't mean that I couldn't continue to forge important relationships with his important friends. As long as I did not have to act in an immoral way, my boss's issues were not my problem.

Always weigh your benefits
A good boss would have learned to type and never would have thought of delegating his typing to a vice president. But I didn't have a good boss. I had a typical boss. One with poor execution of good intentions. He had knowledge and skills to offer me as long as I could manage our relationship productively. I never expected him to manage the relationship for us, because I wanted to make sure I was getting what I needed out of it.

I could have spent my time complaining. There was a lot to complain about. Instead I always approached him with empathy (“I'm sorry she dumped you”), and I always knew my boundaries (“We can't fire her. It's illegal”). Even when he was at his worst, I never took what he said personally (“When you are done yelling, I'd be happy to talk to you”).

Aside from cutting a deal, he didn't have a lot of management skills, and this gap left more room for me to shine. My solid interpersonal skills helped fill in what he was missing and helped me to get what I wanted: A (reluctant and difficult but ultimately) very useful mentor.

So take another look at the boss you call bad. Think about what motivates him: What is he scared about that you can make easier? What is he lacking that you can compensate for? What does he wish you would do that you don't? Once you start managing this relationship more skillfully, you will be able to get more from your boss in terms of coaching and support: You'll be able to tip the scales from the bad boss side to the learning opportunity side.

In fact, you should always hope for a little incompetence on your boss's part. The hole in his list of talents provides a place for you to shine. The point, after all, is for you to shine, and no one shines when they're complaining.

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12 replies
  1. TJ
    TJ says:

    This reminds me of the book “Please Understand Me” which is about different personality types. A lot of times, a person who may seem like a bad boss just has a different personality due to the way they were raised or because of genetics.

  2. Aviva Gabriel
    Aviva Gabriel says:

    I’m getting a sense – from your representative anecdote about what sorts of things a “bad boss” might do – that you haven’t yet encountered what most people mean by a “bad boss.”

    Although I entirely and wholeheartedly agree with you that “managing the relationship” proactively, without whining or feeling victimized, is the key to growing and succeeding in the workplace…a truly BAD boss – and they DO exist – is a person of such toxicity that there IS no “relationship” to manage.

    There is abuse. There are poisonous and even evil deeds. There is a black hole that all proactive, constructive, and mature behavior disappears into…as if it never existed.

    A truly BAD boss is toxic human being who will hurt others without end, regardless of ANYTHING they might do, or not do. It doesn’t matter. A BAD boss hardly perceives anyone or anything outside of their own self-involved sphere.

    I can give some examples…but not right this minute. I’ll wait to see if that kind of thing is of interest to anyone first.

    My real intent is to open the possibility here that “bad bosses” DO exist, and they wreak havoc on people and on businesses.

    You’ll know it when you see it. It’ll be vastly different than anything you’ve even hinted at, or alluded to, in this blog entry.

    So, I invite you to consider – or reconsider – the catchy but false claim that bad bosses don’t exist. This is far too facile a claim.

    There are bad parents. There are bad people. There are psychotic people. There are – truly – real victims in this world. The workplace is no different. Like children with bad parents, there truly ARE workers with bad bosses – and in both situations, there’s a vast power differential that cannot be overcome.

    In the case of adults with bad bosses, sometimes their only power is to leave that workplace. Bosses who are psychically damaged – and in turn damage those around them – can be unyielding, unchangingly abusive.

    So, regardless of one’s emotional intelligence, nothing changes with a truly BAD boss. Those with high EQs usually choose to leave a bad boss; it’s often the most constructive, proactive, and non-victim thing they can do in an unremittingly evil situation.

  3. Renee
    Renee says:

    Aviva Gabriel is right. You don’t know what a truly BAD boss is. A truly BAD boss does illegal things, like gives you death threats, and knows how to make sure you can never get any solid evidence to show the police. A truly BAD boss has you do his work for him and then actively cuts you off when you try to learn, because they know that gives you an advantage and they want to control everything you do. There is no relationship. You are there to do what he says, regardless of how insane it is, and woe befall you if you say no. I, however, have managed to outsmart people like this.

    And one of the reasons I have is by identifying illegal or unethical behavior where I can, without letting the offender know it was me that brought attention to it. Like exposing that guy’s affair. That would have gotten rid of him, though you need to have the mental and emotional mettle to figure out a way to expose it without him knowing it was you.

    But you chose to kiss up to this guy, who apparently did not have an ethical bone in his body (how do you know he got those contracts without bribing somebody?), and that’s why we have to deal with @$$holes in the workplace…because nobody takes a stand.

    Something tells me that if your boss had told you to shred some important documents at Enron, you would have done it. It’s deadwood like this that have thrown us into economic chaos.

  4. Randy
    Randy says:

    How about a boss that works on the other side of the country and commits about 15 minutes a week for you and rambles on about things that have nothing to do with what you’re working on? How about a boss who doesn’t respond to emails or phone calls, ever? How about a boss who declines meeting requests for no reason and gives no other times to meet? How about a boss who things every idea who isn’t his own is a bad idea and he “needs to understand” why you came up with such a horrible idea rather than working on implementing something that you both can agree on? How about a boss who thinks social media is just a fad and can never work for business? How about a boss who, when in the office, sits behind a closed door all day? How about a boss who goes on vacations or business trips and doesn’t notify his team of his whereabouts? How about a boss who believes all professional development can be found via free videos on YouTube? How about a boss who needs his directors to run every little thing by him and never let’s them direct anything that isn’t coming from him? How about a boss who doesn’t communicate to his team anything that is going on in the company that might impact relevant projects. How about that kind of boss, Penelope? Is that a bad boss? Or is that still someone I’m managing poorly?

  5. Lexi Maddox
    Lexi Maddox says:

    Penelope – or whatever your real name is, you are clearly delusional if you believe that an employe can control all bad scenarios when it comes to a bad boss. Clearly you may not understand the politics that occur at the executive level of a corporation – where if someone doesn’t like the way you look or feels a stitch threatened they will push you out if they have that power.

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