A savvy young woman who is an ad agency video producer recently told me her boss’s management style and stress was negatively impacting her work.
We’ve all had “bad” boss experiences – someone who is difficult or ineffective – occasionally, even abusive. Maybe you have one now.
When we’re dealing with a bad boss, it’s the choices we make that can result in positive results and greater happiness.
My friend’s remark got me thinking about some of challenging bosses I’ve worked with over the years.
This may surprise you, but I’m grateful now for the valuable lessons and skills I learned from my “bad” bosses. I’ve worked with difficult, imperfect people, who, in spite of their flaws, taught me a lot.
Do you have “bad” boss?
Here are 5 ways you can help yourself, your team, and maybe even your boss:
1. Get clarity – and empathy. We’ve all acted in damaging ways at one time or another – myself included. None of us are immune to it. Is there an explanation for your boss’ stress? Are they anxious about a big deadline? Even positive developments create stress. Have they taken on additional risk with a new product, new investors, a new board member, or achieved a pivotal customer win? They may need time to absorb it and adopt a new routine.
Are they struggling with a personal matter (divorce, sick parent or child?) Or, is it a pattern of negativity?
Early in my career, one CEO I worked for had occasional outbursts of temper. She was extremely smart – probably the most talented idea-generator and editor I’ve ever worked with.
She was never abusive, never singled someone out for public humiliation. But her outbursts had a cost. Although the team and I liked and respected her, not everyone could brush off the outbursts. Some employees left the company sooner rather than later.
As I got to know her, I could see that a lot of her stress stemmed from her aspirations for all – that every customer and employee would greatly benefit from the company she built and the products and services we offered. That didn’t excuse her behavior, but I believe that my empathy toward her helped our relationship and even softened her. Her outbursts became less intense.
At that early point in my career, I didn’t give myself permission to have a conversation with her about her outbursts. Now I wish I had; both of us would have learned from a courageous conversation like that.
Leaders are people who are learning all the time – just like you. Your boss will make mistakes and need grace – just like you.
2. Look for someone on your team who knows how to handle your “bad boss.” There’s usually at least one person who does. Ask for their advice – how do they achieve an equilibrium with your difficult boss? This is one of the things that helped my friend with her boss.
A colleague of hers supported her by listening, and also gave her useful tips to try. Her boss hasn’t changed, but through this process my friend has had several epiphanies, including this: She knows without a doubt that her boss’s reactions aren’t personal.
My friend has an action plan and is thriving in her work, making a bigger impact than ever, adding and receiving value. She’s becoming an expert in her field. It wasn’t easy, but she’s glad she didn’t quit and miss out on learning and growing.
3. Determine your plan of action. You have many choices. You can’t control your boss – but you can control your response. For a boss who is under deadline pressures, can you help by taking on a few more projects? You can discuss this with your boss, or just take more initiative.
For a boss who you deem under qualified or “incompetent”, don’t miss your opportunities. I once worked for an VP of Marketing who was trained as a lawyer and had no marketing experience. He took the job out of loyalty to the CEO, who evidently thought his colleague could learn by doing. I wholeheartedly believe in learning by doing, but there are some situations where that doesn’t happen. This was one of them.
The VP was clearly not comfortable or well suited for the role. This created countless opportunities for me to gain more responsibility. In the absence of his leadership, I was motivated to become an expert and although I wasn’t able to learn much about marketing from him, he allowed me to take initiative, use my strengths and experiment broadly.
He was grateful to have direct report who took action and communicated regularly. So, my plan of action then was to take a lot of initiative to go deep and wide in my field and learn – to test, launch, tweak, and refine product offerings and campaigns, while communicating and checking in often.
If your boss is abusive, your plan of action involves a courageous, respectful conversation, and clear boundaries – maybe even a resignation – where you don’t burn bridges.
4. Communicate. When you want to address a problem with your boss, begin with the end in mind – what would the best outcome look like? Perhaps you ask your boss to get calm when he is stressed and reduce panic-laden phone calls to you and the team.
You could suggest a new process to manage unforeseen challenges. Ask your boss to collaborate with you on how to regroup, work the problem, and agree on the next best thing to do.
Whatever the issue is, be respectful and be clear about the outcome you want, be willing to collaborate and be part of the solution. What are the top 1 or 2 things that you can do to get to this outcome? It may be something you DON’T do, like adopt your boss’ panic and stress about a situation.
5. Definitely don’t gossip with others about your boss – even if what you say is true and they agree, be wise in how you discuss it – especially in choosing with whom you discuss this problem.
You will have more influence and respect in the long run.
Good leaders don’t gossip, period. Gossip erodes a culture and weakens a team, and it doesn’t solve anything. Making a plan will help you focus your energy on a solution. This is good leadership.
Of course, if your boss, or anyone at your company is doing something abusive or unethical, you must speak with appropriate people in your company – start with HR.
Owning your choices is the essence of leadership: leading yourself first, before you lead others within your organization. This is especially true when your boss isn’t particularly good at leading. Sometimes we feel stressed because we want to change something that is not in our control to change – and other people are in that category.
You can’t change other people. But you can change how you respond. And you can take the initiative to influence this situation for the better; you won’t know until you try.
What is at stake if you don’t?
My experience has been that people leave tough bosses too soon – before they have gleaned all they can from a challenging situation. They think the grass is greener and they will leave their problem boss behind them. But I’ve found that there are difficult people in every organization. Do all you can now to learn how to resolve the situation and increase your skills – in communication, empathy, in relationship building, problem solving, patience, and resolution. You may help yourself, your team, and your boss.
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