In my many years in the corporate world, I was blessed to work for excellent managers. I also worked for some really terrible bosses. One blatantly refused to treat me like a member of the (otherwise male) team, ignoring my requests for an annual review until I threatened to take the issue up with his boss. Another was talented with numbers but not people, and he made little effort to build relationships in or out of the office.
Bad bosses can sneak into any business. You may encounter them in corporate sales, the nonprofit sector, or even in a local church. And when you have a bad boss, even a job you love can become hard to bear.
Working for a bad boss feels personal, but most bad bosses are not like that because they are cruel or careless people but because managing people is very difficult. It’s a skill for which few people have a natural aptitude and even fewer companies or schools offer quality training.
In my experience, most managers want to do well. They use a certain management style because it comes naturally to them or it’s what was modeled for them. So before you throw your hands up and walk away, consider whether there’s more you can do to meet your boss halfway. He or she may never change, but you may improve your situation if you learn how to work with rather than against your boss.
Check Your Perspective
The way you treat your boss—especially a bad one—communicates a lot about your character and your faith to the people around you. Is this simply a clash of personalities? Are you expecting your boss to accommodate your working style without reciprocating? Are you letting anger over past wrongs poison your attitude? Do you complain about your boss to coworkers?
Complaining deflates workplace morale and makes it harder to do your job. Instead, aim to build others up with your words, giving grace and encouragement to those around you (Ephesians 4:29). Approach your situation with humility and compassion (Colossians 3:12), remembering as you aim to improve your work environment that God may be using you to work in someone’s heart.
Choose the Right Approach
Bad bosses come in many varieties, and choosing the best response depends on understanding what drives your boss’s behavior. Here are five common types of bad bosses and practical tips for dealing with them.
1. The Micromanager
Micromanaging bosses want to be involved in everything you do, checking in constantly and scrutinizing every step of your work. You might assume they’re questioning your competence, but their behavior probably has more to do with their own anxiety and overly conscientious nature than with your work.
Frequent, proactive communication is key here. Tell your boss what you plan to work on each week including when you expect to complete each item. Offer a chance to reprioritize your projects or tasks by adding something like, “Would you rather I tackled these in a different order?” This gives your boss the comfort of being involved while keeping her out of your day-to-day activities. If unforeseen situations arise during the week, “get there first” by telling your boss about it before anyone else and offering a solution.
Before starting a new project, ask your boss to define the goals and objectives. Then check in frequently along the way, providing drafts of your work as you go. Drafts allow your boss to review your progress and either reaffirm or change the direction, saving you the frustration of having your work significantly altered after investing a lot of time in it.
2. The Absentee
Whether physically absent or extremely inattentive, the absentee boss doesn’t pay much attention to you until something goes wrong. While the autonomy can be nice, the lack of direction and feedback make it hard to know where you stand, which can lead to unpleasant surprises.
To avoid these pitfalls, develop a standard written report that you distribute every other week to your boss and, if appropriate, other team members. Your report should include any items you completed, what you expect to work on or complete in the next two weeks, and what items you need help with. Don’t wait for feedback; instead, go to your boss and ask for it when necessary. That initiative will increase your confidence that your work is on track. While your boss may not recognize your contributions in the moment, he will not be able to ignore them when it’s time for your performance review.
3. The Do-It-Yourselfer
These bosses have trouble delegating even the smallest of tasks. This behavior communicates that they don’t trust their team to do a good job. Also, their tendency to take everything on themselves means they don’t have much time to support their employees.
The key to working with non-delegators is developing trust. To do so, study their work habits. Do-it-yourselfers tend to be detail-oriented people. The details they care about may seem trivial to you but are critical to them. If you can replicate the analyses they want or create a model that will save them time, they will feel that you understand them, and hopefully they will begin to relinquish control over some of the work.
4. The Best Friend
This boss wants to be your bestie and everyone else’s too. He or she is more invested in being liked than in having an effective team. While this person is lots of fun, the lack of strong leadership will eventually wear on their team. A good boss must be willing to do or say the hard but necessary thing.
To work with a buddy boss, define your boundaries, and don’t be afraid to express them. More important, express them in terms of your company’s mission, vision, or values. Best friend managers are conflict avoiders, but they tend to appreciate and respect people who are willing speak up as long as they do so diplomatically. Over time they will come to ask your opinion or help in dealing with a particular topic or team issue, so be prepared with an answer when you see them struggling.
5. The Bad Cop
These bosses seek to motivate through intimidation and denigration. They are harsh critics, often in public, and they tend to offer little in the way of support or encouragement.
There are two crucial components to dealing with these bosses effectively. First, figure out what makes them happy. Even the toughest taskmasters don’t push people all of the time. Banking goodwill with them is critical. Learn what aspects of their job they are not confident in and master them. These bosses will come to value—or at least need—your input.
Second, handle your interactions with care. Do not directly challenge this type of boss in front of others. If correction is necessary, offer it in indirect terms: “I believe the latest version of those numbers has just come through. Let me send them to you.”
If questioned by a bad cop boss, do not provide an answer unless you have total confidence in it. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “I believe the answer is X, but I will confirm that and email you this afternoon.”
Maintain a Good Attitude
Regardless of which type of bad manager you have, there is one thing he or she cannot control: your attitude. Only you can determine that. Learning to work well with different types of people and different working styles will serve you well no matter where you end up. A clear heart and an open mind can turn even the worst situation into a workable one.