Bad bosses, and how to deal with them

Management experts and authorities on organizational behavior agree that the best ways to deal with an inept, absent or micromanaging supervisor are to communicate, negotiate and learn by negative example.

Have you worked for anybody with one of these managerial styles: cranky hermit, door slammer, high-functioning

sociopath? They exist in every organization. And for the unfortunate people who have to work for them each day, dealing with a bad boss starts to feel like a job within a job. The resulting frustration, anger and dissatisfaction are byproducts of the toxic air created by unstrung bosses.

It takes most people just a few seconds to formulate a response to the question: "Who was the worst boss you ever had?" One professional in the IT world recalled a boss who complimented her shapely legs on a plane ride one week and put her on probation via e-mail the next. The IT manager of another company can laugh now but was less than enthused to be summoned to the CEO's residence on a Sunday to troubleshoot an electrical wiring problem that was unrelated to work activity. Someone else described the last wave of reorganization in which it took his new boss 14 months to ever meet with him.

So forget those career counselor suggestions to take your supervisor to his favorite lunch spot or to cultivate him on a personal level by asking about his family. Management experts and authorities on organizational behavior agree that the best ways to deal with an inept, absent or micromanaging supervisor are to communicate, negotiate and learn by negative example.

While the employee has a clear incentive to get these things worked out, businesses must recognize that they do, too. According to Delta Road, an organization of professional career coaches, it costs $36,000 to replace an employee. Crummy managers might manhandle morale, but left unchecked they can also hurt the bottom line.

People communicate differently and have different preferences for how they like to receive information. There are lots of methods for placing people on a matrix of personality traits or interpersonal styles, like the Meyers-Briggs test and many others. And it's very useful to know where you land within their quadrants or parameters to understand your own preferences or style.

But career management experts also note that such frameworks help educate the employee about other styles that complement and conflict with the employer's mindset. In that way, everyone -- employee or manager -- can adjust their styles accordingly when dealing with someone whose preferences are different. That's the theory. But unless employees are trained how to communicate in a style that aligns better with their manager, the personal style matrix won't be a very practical tool for dealing with difficult managers. With or without such style frameworks, Windows professionals are more likely to get better results when they take stock of their manager's communication preferences -- when to alert him to a problem, via e-mail or phone, and how frequently, for example.

Better that employees learn the fine art of negotiation, notes management consultant Esther Derby, president of Esther Derby & Associates Inc., Minneapolis. "People underestimate the amount of negotiation and partnership that's possible with managers," she said. Because of the hierarchical nature of corporations, people often wait for permission rather than taking the initiative for what they want or need from their manager.

And that means getting closely acquainted with the manager's own goals. As Derby points out, the more you can help them achieve their goals, the more inclined they're going to be to listen to you. Negotiation then becomes a great way to ensure that both parties get what they want out of an agreement.

And as hard as it may be in a soured situation, Derby said it's important to remember that no one, not even managers, come to work thinking that they want to do a bad job today. "They're acting out of a flawed mental model of a manager," she said.

Here's her tip sheet for dealing with different types of difficult bosses:

  • The Hermit: Gives attention to employees only when they screw up.
    Solution: Insist on scheduling time with them, and let them know what you're doing.
  • Micromanagers: Check in on employee/project status every 20 minutes.
    Solution: Give them some sense of how the work will proceed, then negotiate the frequency you'll report on its progress.
  • Verbal abusers: Screamers and yellers with hair-trigger tempers.
    Solution: "What you have to say to me is important, but I can't process info when you're yelling." Reschedule the meeting.
  • Passive aggressors: Those who shift priorities without communication or apparent awareness.
    Solution: Take notes of conversations then copy the manager on them with the statement, "This is my understanding of our conversation." Poses the risk of escalation but also creates a paper trail.

Such negative role models can also be instructive, according to Doug Lewis, founder of Edge Consulting Group, Atlanta, and formerly CIO of Lucent, Pratt & Whitney and the Intercontinental hotel chain. Several years ago when Lewis was an engineer at General Dynamics, the CIO's best friend got promoted to head the technical services division where Lewis worked. "He was brilliant, but he was also the most chaotic person I've ever met," Lewis explained. "He had no management ability whatsoever." Lewis determined then and there to learn all the things he would never do if he got into management.

The big lessons centered around setting priorities, presence and availability, and communication. For instance, Lewis said his boss either never read or never acted on any document that came into his office. "I decided if someone took the time to prepare it, then I need to review it quickly and get it back to them expeditiously," Lewis said.

The few times the boss left his office, he would solicit input on a problem or challenge in the department. But when the decision or plan was finalized, there was no discernible relationship between the advice he got and the action he took. Because the boss never took the time to explain how he arrived at his decision, the atmosphere felt chaotic. "To the extent that I could, I would always share with my bosses, peers and subordinates how I got from one point to the next so they wouldn't see it as discontinuity," Lewis said.

The boss also spent most of his of time in his office and didn't communicate much; also, his personality was difficult to read. "So I always made it a point to get out of my office, communicate with people, tell them what was happening and be forced to communicate," Lewis said.

Perhaps it comes down to how we negotiate the relationship we have with ourselves, our bosses and the world. "Look at what you can do and what requests you can make to shift the relationship," Derby suggested. And if the relationship can't be improved, it may be time to consider other options. "Once you start feeling like a victim, then the options start disappearing," she said.

This was first published in March 2004

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