How to Survive a Bad Boss

by Patty McManus

Most of us have had a bad boss. If you google “bad boss,” you’ll find hundreds of references. They all have one premise in common—bad bosses are bad news.  My take is that the quality of bad boss ranges on a continuum, from mildly ineffective to criminal. Let’s look at three examples and approaches for each one.

1. The boss has a few capability gaps that matter: a workable situation.

The problem with this boss is rooted in blind spots or inattention. Common examples:  running unproductive meetings, forgetting promises, or giving vague direction. As long as you approach these bosses with respect and care, you’re likely to have a positive impact. Asking clarifying questions, making specific requests for support, or giving feedback (remember to focus on the behavior, not the person) are all worth the effort. The risk to your future is low. The potential benefits are high.

2. The boss has a pattern of behavior that makes your work-life difficult: a disagreeable, but not impossible, situation.

   At the midpoint on the continuum, this boss’ actions stem from deeply-grooved habits that are harder to address or change. Examples: taking forever to make critical decisions, taking credit for your work, or micromanaging your every move. If you have tried feedback (or decided it’s too risky) and you still have a rock-solid reason to stay, look for workarounds.

Seek guidance from others on how to both meet this boss’ needs as well as your own.  I once had a boss who was downright mean when my communication wasn’t crisp and brief.  I hated that. I like to kick around ideas and have a thought partner to explore options. But I wanted to keep the job, so I had to adapt to her style. I did that by providing clear, written summaries of project progress and issues that I needed her help with. Thankfully, she became a better boss, and I learned a much-needed lesson about flexing my own communication style.

3. The boss is routinely abusive: never ok.

   A boss’ actions on this end of the spectrum are different and dangerous: serial and serious misuses of power. Examples: attacks on your character, physical threats, and subtle or overt demands for sexual attention. If you feel powerless to stop the behavior, are afraid for your safety, or are concerned about your mental health, bring in reinforcements. Start by sharing your experience with a trusted leader. Have them go with you to HR and report the situation.  You will be most effective if you have documented your boss’ specific words and actions. Avoid generalized accusations such as “passive aggressive,” “bully,” or “pervert.”   Facts are most powerful, and the specific impact on you is important to include as well.  If there is no one in your organization you feel safe speaking with, consider getting outside professional advice. It’s worth the time and money to make a plan to fight back or to get out in a way that protects your interests and integrity.

Fortunately, most “bad bosses” are decent people, merely unaware of their negative impact and open to change.  In any case, think about where the boss behaves on the spectrum and make a rational plan for action.

Some resources I can recommend: 

1. My colleague Beth O’Neill’s succinct and practical piece on giving your boss feedback.

2. Stanford Professor Robert Sutton's guidebook on assessing your “bad boss” situation and developing a game plan.