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July 14, 2022

'Life's too short to work for jerks': How to deal with a bad boss

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    Your boss can influence "everything from choice projects and bonuses to your all-around happiness" in the workplace. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Feintzeig suggests techniques to help "survive, change, leave or overthrow your particular type of bad boss."

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    3 types of 'bad bosses'

    According to Feintzeig's article, bad bosses can reveal themselves in different ways. Some present as the micromanager, others the 'checked-out boss,' and sometimes you might deal with the 'toxic whirlwind.'

    The micromanager

    An overbearing boss typically struggles with uncertainty about how a project will turn out and believes no one else cares as much as they do, according to Janet Ahn, a social psychologist and executive at training firm MindGym.

    "This type of boss needs assurance that the work will get done well," Feintzeig writes. "Tell them you share their sense of urgency and understand exactly what needs to be done for the task to be considered a success—right down to the font they prefer."

    By doing this, you are subtly communicating, "It's getting done, you don't have to watch over me, but I do hear you," Ahn said.

    Feintzeig also suggests supplying any relevant information before your boss has a chance to ask for it. According to Mary Abbajay, president and co-founder of professional-development company Careerstone Group LLC, you should give frequent status updates, even including daily lists of priorities you're focusing on.

    "Become their ally," Abbajay said. "All they need is information and control, so you just give it to them."

    While you may not feel great in the moment, Abbajay noted that as you build trust, your boss will likely loosen their grip.

    With bad bosses, "You gotta find their pain point and cure it," she added.

    The 'checked-out boss'

    According to Abbajay, you need to take the lead and be persistent with a 'checked-out boss.' To do this, she suggests scheduling a series of meetings on their calendar, with a detailed agenda in the invite. She suggested keeping these meetings to 15 minutes or less.

    "Be succinct, be clear," Abbajay said. "And be gone."

    "Aim to primarily communicate via their favorite medium, whether that's email, text or in-person," Feintzeig writes. "If it's the latter, keep a running list of all the items where you need their input and carry it around for when you run into them in the office."

    In addition, Abbajay suggests covering yourself. For example, if they have been absent while you are finishing an important project, she suggests sending an email with a copy of a draft that clearly states the project's due date. She also suggests noting in the email that the boss should send you any questions or concerns prior to the project's deadline.

    Ahn noted that when she worked with absent advisors during her years as a student, she went out of her way to schedule coffee dates with other professors and researchers she admired.

    "It feels a little vulnerable," she acknowledged. However, forming additional connections will help your career progress even when your boss is not advocating for you.

    A 'toxic whirlwind'

    According to Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor who has written books about working for jerks, it sometimes becomes necessary to oust a bad boss.

    "Employees sometimes forget companies don't want bad bosses," Sutton noted.

    "Start by documenting misbehavior and its impact. Save emails where the boss is spewing demeaning insults," Feintzeig writes. "Keep a diary. Record the date, time and what happened."

    Then, Sutton recommends organizing your colleagues into a posse that tracks your boss's misbehavior.

    "The key is to find a person in power, ideally someone who has warm relations with a posse member. It's risky; your group might not have enough pull to prompt change," Feintzeig writes.

    According to Sutton, you should update your résumé and search for other opportunities—just in case the posse is unsuccessful. "Still, plenty of leaders can be convinced that keeping a bad manager around is doing more harm than good," Feintzeig writes.

    "When everybody keeps coming and complaining to the powers that be, that's when they start believing," Sutton added.

    When is it time to head toward the exit?

    While these suggestions are generally effective, they do not always work—and leaving becomes necessary. "If your boss seems an anomaly and you like the company, career consultants advise trying an internal switch," Feintzeig suggests. "Thank your boss for helping you grow, and explain you'd like to expand your skills in another department."

    To avoid working under another bad boss—either inside or outside your organization—executive recruiter Matt Kerr suggests researching the department on LinkedIn to see how many people have left recently. During the interview process, "take notes, take names," he added. Then, turn to your network for unfiltered feedback on potential colleagues.

    Kerr recommends trying to stay in a job for at least one year to avoid drawing questions about your resume. However, he noted that "everyone is entitled to one career mulligan." 

    Ultimately, he added, "Life's too short to work for jerks." (Feintzeig, Wall Street Journal, 7/11)

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