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How to Handle a Lousy Boss

Most people don't comprehend it, but there is a successful way to survive and thrive in this!

A few years ago I did a post on how to lead a lousy team. That scenario presents some significant leadership challenges that demand examination. How the leader responds can make or break that team.

Shortly after that post, one of my readers turned the tables by proposing a follow-up question: how do you deal with a lousy boss and how does that affect the team? That’s an excellent and welcome question! Here are some ideas to get you through that difficult and complex situation.

It’s Not You, It’s Me.

It is wise to pause first and do some careful analysis. The seriousness of the subject demands sober judgment. As a professional person, you want to refrain from immediately jumping to conclusions about your boss. Therefore, before you affirm that you genuinely have a lousy boss, consider these important questions:

  • How much time have you invested in mutual feedback with your boss to improve each other’s performance?
  • Have you tried to manage your boss better by accommodating his or her work style?
  • Do you and your boss have the same understanding of the work that needs to be done, the group’s mission, and office politics?
  • Is it possible you are misinterpreting or prejudging your boss’s behaviors?
  • Do you have a personality clash?
  • Is your preferred communication style in conflict with your boss’s default setting?
  • Have you sought the advice of a trusted confidante who might provide insights that you could be missing?

I have seen many people apply themselves to these questions only to conclude that they genuinely did not have a lousy boss. Instead, they simply had to do some work on communication style, personality awareness, interpersonal skills, or feedback loops. The result was that the worker-boss relationship was beneficially reframed. What had begun as a question on how to handle a lousy boss transformed itself into a better reality of refining the worker-boss relationship. Both the worker and the boss grew through the experience.

On the other hand, if the above approach still leaves you with the conclusion that you have a lousy boss, then you need to go to the next step.

Aligning Our Goals.

Your boss probably will not decline your help to achieve key goals. Schedule a session with your boss to learn more about his or her goals. In so doing, you will have the opportunity to affirm how your goals as a team member align with your boss’s goals. This might sound simple, but sometimes you must start simple for two reasons:

1—The nonarticulation of goals can do a great deal of harm to a team. The team does not know what the target is. That meeting will allow you to hear your boss articulate the goals. That alone allows you to confirm or correct your understanding. Based on that understanding, you have additional opportunity to share how your goals align with your boss’s goals. Some bosses have simply never fully realized this, but they need to experience that awareness. Your argument just might make a great deal of sense to your boss.

2—Sometimes a person is a lousy boss because of a deep distrust of people. Your act of sitting with your boss to ensure your understanding of his or her goals could be very powerful. Through your listening ear, your boss might come to realize that you genuinely are a valued contributor. That revelation can work toward neutralizing dysfunctional behavior patterns that your boss holds. Trust can grow. Some of these dysfunctional patterns are hard to break, but you have to start somewhere.

Some bosses are lousy bosses because they have always believed it is an us-versus-them world. By you taking the time to ensure goal alignment, your boss might grow in his or her understanding of teamwork. That understanding has the potential to improve any boss.

This is just one dynamic involved in handling a lousy boss. Many additional factors are involved such as . . .

Leading The Horse To Water.

If you genuinely have a lousy boss, then one of the ways that you may need to render service is to point gently in the right direction. Yes, there may be times when you can see the solution but your boss cannot. You must lead that horse to water.

You can do this in ways that are nonthreatening. Sometimes it will demand some creativity and conversational jujitsu. For example, you might digress into a minibrainstorming session and then leave your boss hanging with an unanswered question in which the solution becomes more obvious over time. You might be surprised how many times the next day your boss is trumpeting what you already knew was the solution to the problem.

Did you receive the credit? No. Did the boss arrive at a smart decision? Yes. Did the team win? Yes. So what if you did not receive the credit? Sometimes that is how you take a hit for the team.

Remember, the premise here is that you genuinely have a lousy boss. If that is the case, then sometimes adjustments must be made. As long as you have a lousy boss, the more adjustments you can make that ultimately advance the team further than it would have advanced otherwise, then the better off everyone is.

This strategy will not always work for the same reason the adage remains true: although you can lead a horse to water, you cannot make it drink. In some cases, that horse will go thirsty. In some cases, your lousy boss simply will not see the solution to the problem.

When you have a lousy boss, you have to make many adjustments for yourself and for the team. As I have stated before, this is a very complex situation. That is why you may need to move to another level . . .

Caring Enough To Confront.

As we have already discussed, when you genuinely have a lousy boss, you must constantly make accommodations and adjustments. That is just part of the game called “managing your boss.” However, eventually you want to be a catalyst that prompts your boss to improve. That is when caring enough to confront must occur.

Regardless of how difficult, unreasonable, incompetent, or rude your boss might be, because you are a direct report, you have an ethical and professional obligation to be a force for positive change. That is implicit in the unwritten social contract you agreed to when you said yes to the job. As a professional, you want to exercise your influence for good.

Obviously, every situation is different. Therefore, here are a few factors that you will want to consider as you prepare for a caring confrontation:

Where To Start. You don’t necessarily want to go for the biggest project on the list. It could blow up in your face and only make matters worse. Identify the low-hanging fruit first. You want to go for the relatively easy wins. An early victory will be good for you, your boss, and the team. Simultaneously, it has the potential to open up your boss’s thinking to deeper discussions about bigger situations.

Duration And Frequency. Your knowledge of your boss’s personality and psychological profile will help immensely on this one. Some people will be open to lengthy and frequent discussions aimed at self-improvement. Other folks may be more fragile. Your choices concerning duration and frequency can make or break the whole endeavor. Therefore, choose wisely. If you are unsure, then begin with something isolated and short. That will allow you to initiate action and gauge your boss’s reaction, which will inform your next step in the bigger plan.

Strategic Alliances. Although one-on-one caring confrontations are often extremely effective, some cases might be better handled with a very small group. Think carefully about whether a mutual colleague should be invited into the caring confrontation with you and your boss. Sometimes a boss who is struggling needs to hear the truth from more than just you. A wisely chosen associate can work wonders.

When you carefully consider how these factors will inform your approach, a caring confrontation can be a crucial turning point.

As we have seen, handling a lousy boss is no easy task. You have many and varied factors to consider all with multiple possible strategies and tactics to employ. The specifics of your situation will drive your decisions, and those decisions have the potential to improve your boss significantly. Armed with those insights, the big question for you to answer is where do you go from here?

What About Tomorrow?

As you reflect upon your personal professional situation with a lousy boss, I offer you these very important contextual factors. Contextual factors are those specific aspects about your situation that you absolutely must evaluate. By evaluating these contextual factors today, you will attain a much better idea of what you should do tomorrow.

Identify Your Boss’s Core Difficulty. Based on your experience with your boss, you should be able to identify a root cause of his or her performance difficulties. A technical competency deficiency is often more easily solved than a deeply embedded psychological problem such as a dysfunctional personality. Interpersonal relationship skills can be taught, but on the other hand, that will be impossible if the person is simply not willing to learn them.

Evaluate The Effectiveness Of Your Feedback Process. Feedback that is never delivered has no value because it has no impact. There is a right way and a wrong way to deliver feedback and to receive feedback. The more effective your feedback process is, the more opportunities there will be for people to improve. However, without feedback, improvement chances significantly diminish.

Study Your Corporate Culture. Every organization is different. The degree to which you can successfully employ these various improvement strategies will be driven by your corporate culture. If you are blessed with a “five star” corporate culture, then your improvement strategies will have much direct and indirect support, further enhancing their success probability. However, if your corporate culture is poor, then even your best strategies may be unsuccessful because of too many negative distractions.

Make The Best Long-term Decision For You. At some point, you will have to decide what the best long-term decision for you is. Some hills—and bosses—are not worth dying for. Ultimately, as nobly intentioned as you may be to help your boss, you still have to think about the quality of your work environment today and in your future. The best outcome of course is that your boss is able to receive your input and significant improvement occurs. That situation is a win-win. The worst outcome is that your boss completely rejects all your input and you remain in a horrible work situation. That situation is a lose-lose. Please don’t accept the lose-lose. Just because your boss chooses to lose does not mean you have to embrace the same outcome. Transferring to another department or moving onto a new company may be your best solution.

Embrace Your Lessons Learned. You can learn as much from a lousy boss as you can from a magnificent boss. If anything, you at least learn what not to do. Regardless of the ultimate outcome with your lousy boss, maintain the attitude that says I am going to embrace every single lesson learned so that I can forge ahead into my future more equipped than I have ever been. By embracing your lessons learned, you will strengthen the foundation of all your future endeavors. That is a solid win for you!

Summary Of Key Points.

  • It’s Not You, It’s Me. Before you put it all on your boss, consider what might be your contribution to the supposed lousy boss problem.
  • Aligning Our Goals. As a starting point, begin searching for common ground with your boss by aligning your goals. Let your boss know that you genuinely are on the same page.
  • Leading The Horse To Water. Be willing to use some conversational Jujutsu to lead your boss gently toward better outcomes.
  • Caring Enough To Confront. Know when to do the intense work of having some clear conversations with your boss to exchange feedback.
  • What About Tomorrow? Always have your endgame in mind. Ultimately, you must think about your future too.
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