Four-Step Program For Dealing With a Bad Boss

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Sooner or later we all have to work for someone we can't stand. When that happens, some people quit, some suffer in silence, and others cope by sulking, obsessing, or retaliating.

In their recent book, 'Working For You Isn't Working For Me,' authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster examine bad boss scenarios and offer a four-step program for improving each situation. AOL Jobs recently interviewed Crowley and Elster to learn more about how to manage a difficult relationship with a boss.

Q. What are the top reasons people have problems with their bosses?

A. Problems with the boss can stem from management mishaps such as:

  • failure to communicate clearly
  • lack of focus-- not knowing what the priorities are
  • lack of understanding what's expected of you

These situations can be remedied when identified, if employee and boss work together.


Then there are the difficult boss personalities:

  • The micromanaging boss who tries to control your every action
  • The mean-spirited boss who attacks without reason
  • The ADD boss who can't sit still or remember anything
  • The absentee boss who's never there

These situations are much more challenging and require specific interpersonal tactics to navigate.


Q. What are some examples of oil and water boss/employee relationships?

A. The ambitious employee who works for a sacred cow or absentee boss

The challenging, maverick employee who works for a very controlling boss

The peacemaking employee who works for an explosive, attacking boss


Q. When should an employee try to work things out with a boss and when should they just cut their losses and leave?

A. In most cases, we suggest you try and work out your differences -- even if you're hunting for a job on the side. Our four-step process of detecting, detaching, depersonalizing and dealing can help you manage almost any boss/employee relationship.

There are two situations that warrant quitting:

  1. If the relationship with your boss is causing you physical distress. If you're developing ulcers, have chronic headaches, are wearing a back brace -- it's time to leave.
  2. If you're working for a persecutor who is targeting you relentlessly and making work intolerable.

Q. What is the first thing someone should do when they realize they are having a problem with the boss?

A. The first thing you want to do is "detect." That is figure out what the boss is doing that's driving you crazy. Is this person giving you mixed signals, criticizing everything you do, saying "no" to every idea you offer? If you can detect it, you can correct your reaction to it.


Q. Can you give us a top-level approach for handling a difficult boss?

A. Detect, detach, depersonalize and deal. So, let's say you have a boss who says "no" to every idea you offer. You can detect that you're working for a naysayer. You notice that working for this person zaps your energy and makes you extremely frustrated.

You can detach by taking actions to gain some emotional distance from your depressing boss. Restore your energy by taking a run, working out, or walking the dog. Do something to purge the negative energy so you can see things more clearly.

Then depersonalize by understanding that the boss's behavior is not about you. This person has been saying "no" to every idea before you were in the picture and will continue to say "no" after you leave.

Once you detach and depersonalize, you can deal: Either work with the boss to uncover any pet projects he/she may have where your input will be appreciated, or look for opportunities outside of your direct report (such as conferences, task forces, good causes) where your ideas can be valued.


Q. Is it useful to enlist the help of human resources when you are having a boss issue?

A. We recommend you do this only as a last resort. First, try to rectify the situation using our four Ds. While you adjust your behavior, continue to document specific interactions between you and the boss so that you have concrete examples if you ultimately decide to lodge a complaint.


Q. What's a realistic time frame for expecting to see a change in the boss/employee relationship if someone follows your methodology?

A. Try our methodology for at least 30 days and see if you notice a change. Best results can be expected over a 90-day period.


Q. Can you tell us about your worst boss? Your best boss?

A. Kathi's worst boss was an alcoholic who could only hold lucid conversations before the lunch hour.

Katherine's worst boss was an absentee boss who could never speak in-person. "She left notes on my desk every few days."

Kathi's best boss was a seasoned manager in a large corporation who gave her opportunities to shine. "He gave me projects where I could really excel."

Katherine's best boss was a manager in the Peace Corps. "She showed me how to set goals and figure out priorities. She even let me come up with my own job description."


Q. Do you have any success stories to share about someone who followed your suggestions and improved their relationship with their boss?

A. Many. One in particular stands out. One of our clients worked for what we could call a sacred cow. He was hired to bring fresh ideas to the company and instead his sacred cow boss blocked every initiative. We told our client to stop trying to override this long-time employee, and start giving his boss credit for every project that he completed. Begrudgingly, our client complied. Eventually, the sacred cow boss included our client in a huge initiative that gave both of them great visibility and resulted in a promotion.


Q. What's a first step someone dealing with a difficult boss should take?

A. We want to encourage anyone who's having trouble with a boss to take our boss baggage assessment. You'll be able to see what you bring to the relationship. You'll discover your needs, expectations, and fears toward authority, which will give you immediate relief.


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