Being a good leader of others matters now more than ever. Great leaders have regular one-on-ones with their staff, they give and seek feedback, they set goals, and communicate progress regularly. Yet, nearly all of us have worked for a bad leader: someone who doesn’t have time for us, always has a “better” way of doing an assigned task, creates last minute emergency work for the team, and have limited availability to speak with us about project work, or more importantly our career.
Adam Grant, a renown organizational psychologist at Wharton Business school reminds us, “bad bosses keep people stuck in the same job; good bosses create opportunities to grow and advance.” Statistics from 2022 research at DDI, a leadership consulting firm, found that 57% of employees who leave their jobs, leave because they can’t stand their boss.
Forbes recently identified four key behaviors bad bosses demonstrate that encourage employees to leave their job: they diminish employees by micromanaging them, they don’t solicit employee input, they encourage agreement while discouraging dissent, and they can’t be bothered to remove obstacles.
Further, HR.com reports that forty-seven percent of new supervisors receive no supervisor training before being promoted. And, according to the Corporate Executive Board, sixty percent of new managers fail within their first 24 months.
I remember one bad boss I had. The signs were there before I started: interviews kept getting rescheduled, even after I showed up! The offer was weeks in making and wrong when I received it. My manager loved being in charge, but he didn’t want to do the work that came with it. He rarely spent time with any of us individually because he was too busy billing client hours.
“You are not your resume, you are your work.” — Seth Godin
He handed off work that was uninteresting and low profile. One time, he wanted to represent my work at another firm as work of his own. Needless to say, I left after 9 months.
I start my leadership programs by asking participants to think of a great leader they’ve worked for. What did they do that was so compelling? Inevitably, someone says, “what if you never worked for a good boss?” Everyone laughs, but sadly it’s true! Why? Most likely it’s because organizations don’t take time to develop their aspiring leaders.
So, you feel stuck. You work for one of these bad managers, yet you enjoy your work and connect to the company’s mission. Below are some tips for working with a difficult, even bad manager. These allow you to get you through the experience and continue to learn for yourself along the way.
Take the lead yourself.
All employees deserve regular interactions with their employees. These interactions can’t only focus on the work and tasks at hand, they must also focus on you. Here’s a simple framework for a 1:1 with your boss: Describe how you’re doing and your well-being. If you feel constantly overworked, say so.
Share recent accomplishments. Discuss what you learned and what you’d do differently next time. Discuss your challenges and describe ways you can address them, ask your manager to help. Agree on next steps.
If this isn’t happening regularly, take the lead. Schedule 30 minutes with your manager every other week. Be prepared and send a list of topics like the ones above.
Find a stress outlet.
Work out, spend time in nature, work on a hobby, create art, journal, meditate – whatever it takes to keep yourself grounded. Self-care is essential.
Don’t go it alone.
Find a group of people you can safely talk to about the situation so you can stay sane while trying to make things work. For those who need to talk things out, having a safe place to do so is critical. Consider talk therapy. Sometimes it’s not only your manager’s problem; you might be experiencing a rough patch in your life and difficult interactions with your boss make it worse.
Most employers have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) included in their benefits. The resources they recommend are usually covered by your benefit plan and your conversation with them will be completely confidential.
Be clear about your goals.
You work with someone who isn’t particularly supportive and even difficult, so take a moment to describe for yourself why you like your job. You are a smart and capable person, but even the best of the best can be beaten down by tough situations and tough people.
Avoid fighting so hard and long that you lose who you are in the process. What are you learning from it? Even if you work for a bad boss but are learning every day and doing engaging work, the bad boss can be tolerable.
Find a mentor inside your organization.
Mentors are usually more senior than you and in a different department. They understand the politics of the organization and “how we do things here.” Their insight may help you understand your own manager better. Avoid complaining about your manager to your mentor; it’s just bad form.
Instead, focus on your aspirations. Your mentor may even suggest other roles in the organization that you could pursue. While most senior leaders love to mentor, they won’t reach out to you, so you need to reach out to them.
Talk to HR if it gets too bad.
Foul language, sexual innuendos, or just not being available are never acceptable behaviors. Talk to HR about your challenges. If you are experiencing a bad boss, most likely others have too. They will keep your information confidential, but most likely not tell you what actions they might take, because these are confidential issues too.
Find another role in the company.
You love the company, but hate your boss? Seek out other roles inside the company. Some organizations require you to work in a role for a year before seeking another role so that may limit your options. You are far better off, however, staying at the company you know than moving to another that you don’t know.
Know when to cut bait.
There may come a time when you have had enough. That is OK. This does not make you a quitter; it makes you a survivor. Update your LinkedIn profile; let others find you. Interact on LinkedIn regularly by finding new connections in organizations you admire.
Remember: you don’t have to take a job just because it’s offered to you! Getting that offer may give you peace of mind to know you have value in the market.
Don’t make the same mistake twice.
When we end up working for a bad boss, we can often look back and see signs of trouble even before we took the job. Interview your potential manager after the offer is extended: What are the goals for the team? Tell me about your 1:1s. What are your team meetings like? These questions will give you insights into the role you are moving into, so you avoid a bad manager again.
Let’s face it, we all have worked for a bad boss. It doesn’t, however, need to be total misery every day. Get clear on your professional aspirations and assess whether they are being met, despite your bad boss. Initiate regular 1:1 check-ins with your boss; aim to broaden the conversation from “what have you done for me lately,” to “here’s a bit more about me and what I’m interested in.”