A bad boss is more than a problem to gripe about to friends and a bartender. He or she can hurt your career, either by failing to provide feedback and direction or by giving you negative performance reviews.
To be fair, most bad bosses aren’t actually terrible people—they’re good people in the wrong role. Usually this situation can be managed, manipulated, and massaged to your liking (or even your advantage).
Whether you’re dealing with a micromanager or a meanie, here’s how to manage up—and stay sane.
The situation: Your boss wants to read every email you send. No, she doesn’t want you to cc her—she wants to stand over your shoulder and dictate. She typed a schedule for washing coffee cups. She has strong ideas about the how toner should be replaced. She is driving you insane.
The strategy: Out-micromanage her so you’re in control. Ask for time on her schedule, every day if needed. During this early-morning meeting, lay out every single thing you plan to do that day. Ask her how she wants it done. Ask her if and when she wants to see the final product. Ask her if you have the priority order right. Ask her what font to use. Ask her if you should check in again, just like this, after lunch. Write down everything she says, and do it.
In a nutshell, give her what she wants—and then a big, heaping spoonful more. There are a few possible outcomes (all of them improvements):
- She loves it! Great. You’re still dealing with a micromanager, but now at least she’s happy.
- You’ll out-micromanage her, and she’ll actually tell you to “use your judgment.” Success!
- Maybe, slowly, over several weeks or months, she’ll actually grow to trust you. She’ll still be a micromanager to everyone—except you.
The inept boss
The situation: Your boss has no idea what your job is, or how to be a manager. So when he jumps in and tells you you’re doing everything wrong…well, no, you aren’t. He’s alienating staff and customers. He can’t use bcc. He can’t lead a meeting. He says things like “Let’s email it on the Twitter.” He’s embarrassing.
The strategy: First, become the one person who makes your boss feel like a good boss. He would like that, wouldn’t he? He completely ignores a looming deadline. You say: “I like how you let the team handle that. It’s great to work someplace where we can take responsibility.”
Next: Step into the void and lead. Use every vacant stare and stupid remark as a lever for your inner opportunist. Not just grunt work and cleaning up mistakes: Get your name on projects. Volunteer to facilitate meetings. Relentlessly position yourself where people two levels up will see you calmly moving the department forward. All the while, be kind to your incompetent boss, and graciously give him credit for things everyone knows he didn’t do. While you’re at it, dress a little nicer than him.
Finally, your boss can’t be terrible at everything—after all, he did get hired, right? Maybe his one talent is interviewing or schmoozing. Whatever it is, it’s so vast that it outweighs his total incompetence. Humble yourself and learn from the master. You might want that skill in the future.
The disconnected boss
The situation: Your boss has no idea what any of her direct reports do for a living. You ask her a specific question about what you should be working on, and she replies with vague platitudes or off-the-wall suggestions. Does she even know what the company does? It isn’t clear.
The strategy: Give her a face-saving way to catch up. Just as some CEOs “walk the floor” throughout the company’s factories and offices, ask your boss when would be a good time for a demo of the product you’re working on, a tour through the graphic design department, or a chat with a group of customers.
Try to get to know her. If she’s a hermit who’s decided to retreat into her office and ignore the day-to-day, connect on an intellectual level. Isn’t it interesting that you read management journals in your spare time? You found this great article you thought she would like! Or maybe she really didn’t want this job—she applied elsewhere in the company, and was instead assigned to your “pointless” department. Find out what she does thinks is important, and emphasize that.
If she continues to hole up in her office, you need to manage your own situation. Write a plan for yourself: Here are your priorities for the quarter, here are your deadlines, here are the stakeholders, and here are the goals. Get her to sign it. If she moves on to a job she’s actually interested in, your new boss will see written evidence that someone knows what they’re doing.
The unrealistic boss
The situation: The CEO has a brilliant new idea, and your boss told her that your team can implement it—by next week. You’ll do all your other projects as well, of course. Just “fit it in,” maybe take lunch at your desk, and it’ll be fiiiine.
The strategy: Don’t let an unrealistic boss put the burden of the impossible on you. Use numbers, calendars, and lists to force realistic decisions and prioritization—without having to complain about your workload.
Try something like, “I love your optimism!” And then pull out a calendar. For example, print a weekly calendar with enough room to write out a task for every hour. Then ask your boss to help you schedule the right tasks for the actual hours that exist in the day.
A related technique: When your boss throws a huge project in your lap with a deadline of yesterday, schedule time with him to map out all the steps. Make a GANTT chart. Or a really detailed list. Make it clear that what your boss thinks is one item is really 25. Ask questions like, “How can we pare these down to meet the deadline?”
Get mathy. Calculate actual labor hours. “Our team of six has 240 labor hours a week. About 90 of those are devoted to routine tasks. Do you want to stop any of those? No? OK, of the 350 hours left, we have Vivien and Latrice dedicated entirely to the LogicBoard account, so that leaves us with…”
The mean boss
The situation: Remember the last time you made a mistake at work? Yes, everyone does—because your horrible boss told the whole office about it, loudly. You’re getting ulcers and losing your hair from the stress. And you certainly aren’t getting a raise. You’re basically starring in Mean Girls for grown-ups.
The strategy: Address it head-on. Don’t passively try to ingratiate yourself with weak compliments and mousy compliance. Definitely don’t bake some stupid cookies.
Woman up and ask, “I realize that I’m getting a bad reaction from you to my ideas in the weekly meeting. I could use some information about the direction you want to take the project in so I can make sure my contributions are on point.”
Make it partly about you (“I’m getting a lot of negative feedback from you lately”) but don’t be a total pushover. Especially if you’ve been a total pushover the whole time already. It obviously doesn’t work, and your passivity may actually be repelling your boss even more.
Some bosses want to work with peers, equals, people they respect, people who can take the heat. It may actually be the case that your attempts to make it better by bowing down have actually been making it worse. That being said, if your manager is taking hazing cues from locker rooms or frat houses, take it to HR.
The buddy boss
The situation: Oh no, your boss is too nice! The bartender isn’t going to buy you a round for that sob story. But there are downsides. Your co-workers start rolling in late and blowing through deadlines, and you don’t get the feedback you need. It could cost you a raise if you spend all year being praised only to find out at your performance review that he’s not all that impressed with your work. He’s just, you know, nice.
The strategy: Schedule regular check-ins. Try to set the tone. Don’t get sidetracked with friendly chitchat—say explicitly, “I need some feedback from you to make sure I’m on track to meet our projections.” Get those expectations in writing. Thank your boss for being so collegial, but say you want the tough feedback, too.
You can also tactfully point out ways in which the boss’s niceness is actually not that nice. For instance: One slacker on the team is goofing off and turning in shoddy work that others have to fix. When the boss is “nice” to that slacker, it perpetuates the problem and damages morale. Your boss might be motivated to crack down if it’s framed as being “nice” to everyone else.
Oh, and if your boss sends a super-friendly Facebook request, pretend you didn’t see it and check your privacy settings immediately. Then send a cheerful LinkedIn request with a note like, “Happy to connect! I spend most of my time on LinkedIn these days. Here’s an article I thought you’d enjoy.” Redirect, redirect, redirect.