Four steps employees can take to manage a ‘bad boss’ Four steps employees can take to manage a ‘bad boss’

Four steps employees can take to manage a ‘bad boss’
10 Jul 2018

Have you ever met a ‘Janet’? 

Janet is heavily involved with the local community and helps out where she can. She is a regular church-goer and is also married to a fantastic guy. Her elderly father still has a farm and, when not working at her full-time job, Janet is there to help harvest the crops and care for livestock. To top it all off, Janet adopted two children from her local community when their parents died unexpectedly. By many people’s definition, she is a good person.

When at work at a large corporate, Janet is a manager and team leader. Upper management think she is a superstar. She always ensures projects are completed when nobody else would be able to do it. Whenever there is a difficult or challenging piece of work, Janet is asked to help as she gets things done. No matter what a struggle it is, she always delivers results.

But what the senior leadership team do not see is the impact she has on the team of people working for her. They are not happy and, behind closed doors, refer to her as a “wrecking ball”.

Janet micro-manages people and holds back key information required by her team. She blames others for any problems that come up and lies about whose fault they are. She yells and threatens to take away people's vacation time and, in some instances, even threatens them with dismissal. To top it off, when things go well, Janet takes all the glory – seemingly forgetting the people that have worked so hard to make her look good.

Janet dominates through aggression and intimidation and her abrasive behaviour both causes personal distress and damages organisational performance. Although Janet is a good person, her employees consider her a ‘bad boss’. 

When faced with such a situation, staff tend to react in one of two ways: they either suffer quietly or decide there is no other way out than to find another job – perhaps anything. But fortunately, there are four steps employees can take to turn a ‘bad boss’ situation into a more positive employee-manager relationship:

Step 1: Assess the situation

No one is perfect. Each and every one of us reveals less than desirable characteristics if the circumstances are right. If someone in authority demonstrates dysfunctional behaviour as a one off, they are by no means a ‘bad boss’.

But it is a problem if this dysfunctional behaviour becomes a pattern and creates emotional distress for others, not least because it ultimately causes organisational performance to suffer. Here is some action you can take:

  • Identify which behaviours are being evidenced and what is the true dynamic. Consider this statement:

‘John yelled at Sarah when she asked for an unplanned vacation day because he likes to make her life miserable.’

Filter out any elements that are not factual (for example, ‘because he likes to make her life miserable’). Stick with the facts, and only the facts (that is, ‘John yelled at Sarah when she asked for an unplanned vacation day’). 

  • Distinguish a one-off situation from recurring undesirable behaviour. Ask yourself whether John has always behaved in this way or whether there has been a sudden change in the way he acts? If so, what might have brought about this shift? Is John behaving like this with everyone or just one person?

Step 2: Understand why the situation is taking place

People often make illogical assumptions when it comes to a ‘bad boss’. The first is that they are fully aware of the impact their abrasive behaviour has on others. The reality is that most of them are clueless and are unaware there is a problem.

Secondly, people often think a bad boss has malicious intent and is out to get people. In fact, most individuals, including bad bosses, have positive intentions, believing they are doing what is necessary to achieve results. But they are frequently afraid of being perceived as incompetent and so become defensive.

Thirdly, bad bosses are perceived as evil, nasty people. But the reality is that most of them are good people who are failing to execute their leadership role effectively.

Finally, many people assume that bad bosses cannot or will not change. In fact, with the right support in place such as enabling feedback, open dialogue and an understanding of the consequences of their behaviour, people can and do change. This fact has been proven over and over again.

Step 3: Find help

Do not tackle this issue alone. Working for a ‘bad boss’ takes its toll even on the strongest of people and quite often leads to both physical and mental strain. As a result, it is important to seek help to address the matter and, as a minimum, ensure you have the support needed to keep yourself healthy.

Possible places to turn to in order to get help include:

  • HR for complaints, investigations, mediation etc;
  • Trade unions to help tackle grievances;
  • Doctors for medical support, including referrals for time away from work;
  • Coaches, counsellors or therapists to help think through situations and provide the tools and skills to help you manage them yourself;
  • Employee Assistance (EA) programmes, which are anonymous and free-of-charge for employees to provide them with resources such as counselling, legal and career guidance support;
  • International Association for Suicide Prevention, which is a telephone hotline.

Step 4: Take appropriate action

Here is a critical question, so answer it as quickly as you can without over-thinking it, trusting your gut instinct instead:

‘If your ‘bad boss’ was miraculously changed into a ‘great boss’ overnight, would you still want to work for them?’

If the answer is ‘no’, you are likely to be already halfway out of the door as the situation is no longer tolerable. If this is the case, plan your exit strategy with the help of a coach or other resources available through your EA programme or other benefits.

If you answer ‘yes’, start working out what changes you could make to help improve the situation. While the ideal would be to see the behaviour of your ‘bad boss’ change, it will be easier and faster to change how you interpret the situation (see step three).

One final thought: People like Janet can be both good people and bad bosses. But, just like you, they deserve the chance to be successful so help them if you can. Good people deserve it.

Kevin Judge 

Kevin Judge is an author, international speaker, business coach and consultant who helps people stand out from a crowd and succeed in a fiercely competitive market.

Have you ever met a ‘Janet’? 

Janet is heavily involved with the local community and helps out where she can. She is a regular church-goer and is also married to a fantastic guy. Her elderly father still has a farm and, when not working at her full-time job, Janet is there to help harvest the crops and care for livestock. To top it all off, Janet adopted two children from her local community when their parents died unexpectedly. By many people’s definition, she is a good person.

When at work at a large corporate, Janet is a manager and team leader. Upper management think she is a superstar. She always ensures projects are completed when nobody else would be able to do it. Whenever there is a difficult or challenging piece of work, Janet is asked to help as she gets things done. No matter what a struggle it is, she always delivers results.

But what the senior leadership team do not see is the impact she has on the team of people working for her. They are not happy and, behind closed doors, refer to her as a “wrecking ball”.

Janet micro-manages people and holds back key information required by her team. She blames others for any problems that come up and lies about whose fault they are. She yells and threatens to take away people's vacation time and, in some instances, even threatens them with dismissal. To top it off, when things go well, Janet takes all the glory – seemingly forgetting the people that have worked so hard to make her look good.

Janet dominates through aggression and intimidation and her abrasive behaviour both causes personal distress and damages organisational performance. Although Janet is a good person, her employees consider her a ‘bad boss’. 

When faced with such a situation, staff tend to react in one of two ways: they either suffer quietly or decide there is no other way out than to find another job – perhaps anything. But fortunately, there are four steps employees can take to turn a ‘bad boss’ situation into a more positive employee-manager relationship:

Step 1: Assess the situation

No one is perfect. Each and every one of us reveals less than desirable characteristics if the circumstances are right. If someone in authority demonstrates dysfunctional behaviour as a one off, they are by no means a ‘bad boss’.

But it is a problem if this dysfunctional behaviour becomes a pattern and creates emotional distress for others, not least because it ultimately causes organisational performance to suffer. Here is some action you can take:

  • Identify which behaviours are being evidenced and what is the true dynamic. Consider this statement:

‘John yelled at Sarah when she asked for an unplanned vacation day because he likes to make her life miserable.’

Filter out any elements that are not factual (for example, ‘because he likes to make her life miserable’). Stick with the facts, and only the facts (that is, ‘John yelled at Sarah when she asked for an unplanned vacation day’). 

  • Distinguish a one-off situation from recurring undesirable behaviour. Ask yourself whether John has always behaved in this way or whether there has been a sudden change in the way he acts? If so, what might have brought about this shift? Is John behaving like this with everyone or just one person?

Step 2: Understand why the situation is taking place

People often make illogical assumptions when it comes to a ‘bad boss’. The first is that they are fully aware of the impact their abrasive behaviour has on others. The reality is that most of them are clueless and are unaware there is a problem.

Secondly, people often think a bad boss has malicious intent and is out to get people. In fact, most individuals, including bad bosses, have positive intentions, believing they are doing what is necessary to achieve results. But they are frequently afraid of being perceived as incompetent and so become defensive.

Thirdly, bad bosses are perceived as evil, nasty people. But the reality is that most of them are good people who are failing to execute their leadership role effectively.

Finally, many people assume that bad bosses cannot or will not change. In fact, with the right support in place such as enabling feedback, open dialogue and an understanding of the consequences of their behaviour, people can and do change. This fact has been proven over and over again.

Step 3: Find help

Do not tackle this issue alone. Working for a ‘bad boss’ takes its toll even on the strongest of people and quite often leads to both physical and mental strain. As a result, it is important to seek help to address the matter and, as a minimum, ensure you have the support needed to keep yourself healthy.

Possible places to turn to in order to get help include:

  • HR for complaints, investigations, mediation etc;
  • Trade unions to help tackle grievances;
  • Doctors for medical support, including referrals for time away from work;
  • Coaches, counsellors or therapists to help think through situations and provide the tools and skills to help you manage them yourself;
  • Employee Assistance (EA) programmes, which are anonymous and free-of-charge for employees to provide them with resources such as counselling, legal and career guidance support;
  • International Association for Suicide Prevention, which is a telephone hotline.

Step 4: Take appropriate action

Here is a critical question, so answer it as quickly as you can without over-thinking it, trusting your gut instinct instead:

‘If your ‘bad boss’ was miraculously changed into a ‘great boss’ overnight, would you still want to work for them?’

If the answer is ‘no’, you are likely to be already halfway out of the door as the situation is no longer tolerable. If this is the case, plan your exit strategy with the help of a coach or other resources available through your EA programme or other benefits.

If you answer ‘yes’, start working out what changes you could make to help improve the situation. While the ideal would be to see the behaviour of your ‘bad boss’ change, it will be easier and faster to change how you interpret the situation (see step three).

One final thought: People like Janet can be both good people and bad bosses. But, just like you, they deserve the chance to be successful so help them if you can. Good people deserve it.

Kevin Judge 

Kevin Judge is an author, international speaker, business coach and consultant who helps people stand out from a crowd and succeed in a fiercely competitive market.