What To Do When You’ve Got A ‘Bad Boss’


More likely than not, you have worked for a bad boss.

I’ve had clients tell me about bosses who lied to them, then denied it; bosses who belittled them and made them cry in meetings; and even bosses who threw something “near” them and cursed. And these are just the tip of the iceberg of the stories I hear as an executive coach and leadership consultant.

However, for almost every “bad boss moment” I’ve heard, I’ve had a client who fit the description of “bad boss” yet seemed very genuine in their efforts to be a good human being.

I often do 360s for my clients. During the coaching process, this allows us to get anonymous feedback from managers and colleagues so that my client and I are not just working with his or her impressions. Instead, we have a window into possible blind spots and behaviors he or she might not be aware of.

It’s often surprising for people to learn that their colleagues don’t see them as competent as they believe they are. Also surprising to them is finding out they are deeply admired. Many bosses, for example, aren’t just focusing on what you’re doing wrong. They are judging themselves just as harshly on what they see as their failure in leadership.

When To Say Goodbye To A Bad Boss

This is a question many people in bad work situations struggle with — how to know when the bad behaviors and emotional relief of leaving outweigh the benefits.

Of course, different people have different tipping points. It might depend on your mortgage payment, family situation, or tolerance for unhappiness at work. There’s no easy formula about whether to stay or go, but here are five strategies I often advise my clients to try:

1. Understand Your Boss’s Pressures

Have you ever believed your friend or spouse was being a jerk and treating you unfairly? And then, as you proceed to give them a piece of your mind, they apologize and tell you what’s really been happening for them, which then makes you feel like a jerk?

These types of conversations are rare between managers and employees. Yet knowing the pressures that someone is under often gives you empathy for their actions.

So do this: Make a list of the pressures and deadlines that you know that your boss is under. Maybe they’ve let slip that their child is undergoing a learning disability evaluation or that their parents’ health is declining. Maybe you know nothing about them. What can you find out through friendly inquiries?

Once you have that list, you might have a better sense of whether this is someone under an extraordinary amount of pressure at this time. Perhaps you can even find ways to help them out and earn their gratitude.

Or maybe your manager has had this same situation for years and no one has ever found a chink in their armor — that’s important to know too, and should help inform your decision.

2. Look At The Pressures In Your Organization 

More and more organizations are making do with less — less staff, less budget, less understanding. I had one client who could never get any time with her manager. Soon after, there was a big re-organization in the company, and she understood how consumed he was fighting for resources for their group and to solidify his own position.

Granted, looking at the organizational pressures might help you understand more but still leave you unwilling to put up with your boss’s behavior. Understanding the organizational pressures, however, can give you a sense of whether you want to look across the organization for a different role, or whether the pressures on your company are currently too great such that you would need to find another company to enjoy stability and happiness.

3. Understand Your Boss’s Personality Type

personality typeWhether your workplace uses assessments like Myer’s Briggs, DiSC, Enneagram, etc., taking the time to learn about these personality types can help equip you to deal with them.

After doing several workplace DiSC trainings, I saw colleagues who initially thought someone was brusque and rude realize that they simply shared different workplace values. Some people approach problems from the people side while others approach it by delving into tasks.  These two types have very different needs and approaches — one might seek collaboration and connection, another could seek silence and space to “get stuff done.”

The more you can understand your boss’s personality type, the better you will be able to understand whether the challenge is related to different working styles or fundamental character flaws.

4. Decide Whether You Need This Job Or Not

You might really need this job’s income. Maybe it’s a great resume builder or a crucial stepping stone to what you really want to be doing. And if that’s the case for you, make a list of what you want to learn and master in this position that will serve you well in the future.

It’s much better to feel as if you’re paving the way for your future success versus just putting in the time so you can pay for your life. Happiness comes when we feel a sense of purpose. Find what non-monetary benefits you derive from your job and focus on these.

5. Investigate Other Options On The Side

One of the worst things about a bad work situation is that it can make you feel trapped and powerless. So take back some of the power: Start figuring out the parts of your job that you value (Company? Benefits? Compensation? Mission?) and the parts of your job that are neutral or disadvantageous.

Just this overall assessment can make it a lot clearer where to investigate first: Do you love the company and its mission but hate your boss? Then network with hiring managers in different departments. Do you have a bad boss, with a job that bores you, in an industry that feels blah? Then you have some deeper career and personal introspection to do.

I encourage you to pick one or two of these strategies and see what new information and options open up for you.

I believe many bad bosses are not inherently bad people destined to be bad bosses forever. There is hope for them to improve and become valued mentors. That being said, a lot of my clients who were miserable have found that switching managers, departments or companies was ultimately the best choice for them. And I respect that. We spend too much of our life at work to be consistently unhappy there.


This article was originally published on Forbes.com on April 12, 2016.

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Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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