"Either you deal with what is the reality or you can be sure that the reality is going to deal with you." ~Alex Haley
"Deal with the world the way it is, not the way you wish it was." ~John Chambers
More than half of workers, whether in leadership or the front lines of the organization, site a “bad boss” as the worst part of their current job. The reasons for the prevalence of bad bosses are numerous; lack of training, poor fit for the position, lack of accountability from their boss, poor emotional intelligence, etc. Bad bosses also come in a variety of “flavors” from the angry boss, to the aloof boss, to the micromanager, and even a clueless boss.
If you have a great boss now, then fantastic. Odds are, however, that at some point in your career you will face off against a poor leader. How you handle that boss will go a long way to determining how far you go in your career. If managed poorly, a horrible boss can drain the life out of your career.
So what do you do to ensure you are able to continue to progress even with the handicap of a leader who doesn’t support you effectively?
Keep talking to them – It is natural to simply not want to deal with a boss who is angry or incompetent, but isolating yourself from your boss cuts you out of any benefit you can gain from them, and often arouses suspicion on their behalf. You need to stay engaged with them, even if they aren’t putting forth the effort. Your boss has access to information on where the organization is going, what opportunities are out there, what the expectations are, and a myriad of other information that is essential for your career. Limit access to that at your peril.
Focus on yourself – If you want to be successful in the employ of a bad boss you need to make you’re your own performance is exceptional. Your role doesn’t change based on the quality of your leader. If you want to overcome a bad boss, you need to maintain your high standards. For those under a boss who suffers from fits of anger and perfectionism this might seem somewhat obvious, but one of the worst traps an employee can fall into is excusing their own poor performance by referencing the poor performance of the leader. Lowering your standards at any point is stalling your career.
Know what they care about – One of the main reasons that certain bosses are terrible is that they are naturally poor communicators. This creates huge conflicts in priorities as nobody understands what they should be working on. This is an instance where you can take control over your surroundings by working out the clues of what your boss finds important. Ensuring that you take care of the things that are important to them helps you prioritize your work and builds trust between you and your boss.
Find a mentor elsewhere – While your current boss should be your mentor, there is no reason you can’t look elsewhere. It may be a team leader, an exceptional peer of yours, or a peer of your boss’s. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, one of the reasons that poor leadership is so pervasive is that nobody receives any training. Finding a mentor is essential to your career development and helps to ensure that you don’t fall into your boss’s category of leadership.
One other note; it is common to not be able to find a mentor in an organization. In those cases, I always recommend that you “pick and choose” traits from potential members that they are particularly strong at. There’s no reason that you can’t have the best of all worlds.
Cover their weaknesses – It’s easy to start griping and whining about your boss’s weaknesses, it’s quite different to do something about it and help them address them. Poor organization, difficulty making decisions, lack of trust, are all very common weaknesses of bad bosses, and are ones that you can help address through your behavior and preparation. The surest way to get a promotion is to help your boss be successful and take over for them when they move on. Don’t sit back and whine about how bad your boss is, do something about it and seize the opportunity to be indispensable to your boss. Being a resource for a bad boss often alleviates many other issues you may face under their employ.
Speak up and don’t cower – Bad bosses often resort to intimidation. It’s important for your long term health in the organization to not just “cave” as soon as they put their foot down. We aren’t looking for defiance either, just a bit of a backbone behind your actions and ideas. You won’t gain their respect by cowering to their every whim, you will only encourage them to bully you more.
You also want to make sure that them not listening doesn’t dull your willingness to share ideas. Leaders in the making have ideas, and whether your direct boss hears you or not, your peers will and that will eventually disseminate through the organization.
Keep back-up – Of course you will keep your e-mails, but it is also worthwhile to keep notes of your boss’s requests and directives. Bad bosses suffer from constant and convenient memory loss on things (especially those things that aren’t going well). Having the back-up will show to them that you are organized, follow directives and aren’t as incompetent as they may have been insinuating. Obviously you don’t want to just throw it in their face, but finding a way to reference what was said before is usually more than enough. Once you’ve done this a few times, the need to reference the back-up usually decreases.
Set reasonable boundaries – For the boss who wants to be too much of a friend to the boss who wants to interrupt your vacation, you owe it to yourself to set boundaries with every boss. This ensures a healthy environment at work for you. Now part of having “reasonable” boundaries is the need to have some flexibility built into them for the natural flow of business, and they also need to have exceptions built into them for emergencies (but of course these need to be true exceptions). Too often we encourage this behavior in our bosses by responding to e-mails after 9pm and on vacation. Encourage reasonable boundaries instead of giving control over to your boss.
Learn what not to do – Every leader you have is a tutor. And if you’re paying attention, every single one will teach you things you should do and shouldn’t do. Sometimes it’s actually harder for us to learn from a boss who does everything right because it comes across as easy. A horrible boss is apt to make more mistakes, which allows you to learn from them before you make them yourself.
Be ready to leave – Life is too short to go to a job that makes you miserable every day. So at least prepare to leave, take a look at your job duties and see if there are any areas where you could gain experience while you are there. Listen for other opportunities in the organization. There is something to be gained in every situation, you just need to find it.
Every difficult situation has opportunities within it and your employment under a horrible boss is no different. If you are able to capitalize on those opportunities by dealing with the situation in the right way, you can ensure that your career path doesn’t skip a beat.
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