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How to Deal With a Horrible Boss

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There’s nothing quite like having an amazing boss. It makes life so easy. Even if your day-to-day duties in the office aren’t the most exciting, a boss who makes work fun and engaging can totally take the edge off even the most painfully boring tasks.

And then there are the bosses who make life just a little harder. The ones who don’t hesitate to call you at midnight about a presentation. The ones who never show up to meetings on time. Unfortunately, most of us have had an experience with a less-than-awesome boss at some point.

So how should you deal with a yucky boss? Is there ever a way to not let it get to you? I posed these questions to Rajeev Peshawaria, who has spent more than two decades developing corporate leadership at major global companies, such as Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley. Peshawaria, who is the author of the book, “Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders,” was also head of Goldman Sachs’ renowned Pine Street Group leadership program in Asia and Europe.

Emily Jasper: What defines a horrible boss from a boss who may be tough but fair?

Rajiv Peshawaria: Horrible bosses come in all shapes and sizes.  The ones that I find the most difficult are those who don’t have a clue about what they want out of life, let alone what they want for their team.  They haven’t thought about what is most important, and have no sense of personal purpose or vision for the team.  These bosses are warm and friendly one day and cold and critical the next.  Why? In the absence of a sense of purpose or big picture vision, they don’t have a way to put things in perspective. For them, every small disappointment in their day is a matter of life and death.  They’re prone to unpredictable emotional outbursts, and their employees bear the brunt of their irrationality. On the other hand, a tough but fair boss knows where she is going, and gives her employees the opportunity to hone their skills and challenge themselves to perform at a higher level.

EJ: How can young employees develop a thick skin?

RP: The unfortunate truth is that the chances of getting stuck with a horrible boss at some point in your career are very high.  I’ve talked to thousands of people over the last 20 years, and found that on average, people report only having zero to two great bosses in their entire career.  So chances are, if you’re working for a horrible boss, it’s probably not the first – or the last – time. Since you don’t have the option of firing your boss, the best thing to do is develop a coping mechanism. Here’s the trick: if you’re clear about your own purpose (what you want to achieve in your life and career) and your values (what you stand for), you’ll be better equipped to tolerate a horrible boss. Why? Because each time you experience irrational behavior from your boss, you can ask yourself:

  • How important is this situation in the context of my overall purpose?
  • If I were to react according to my deeply held values, what would I do?

By using the two questions as a filter, you will pick only those battles that really need to be picked, and let go of the rest.  In essence, you can choose to not let your boss’ every move upset you.  He won’t be your boss forever.

EJ: What are your tips for reacting to and dealing with the stress or erratic behaviors of horrible bosses?

RP: First, it’s critical to understand that there is not much you can do to actually change your boss.  When it comes to horrible bosses, it’s not you – it’s them. If staying a bit longer in the job is the right step for your career, then stay put and do what you can to ignore their behavior and take the high road.   Before you react to their outbursts, step back, and consider the two questions we posed earlier.  If you focus on what you want and what you stand for, you can better control your emotions, and will survive your boss’ tenure much easier.  The worst thing you can do is become reactive – don’t play into their hand.

EJ: What can employees do to manage expectations with bosses, horrible or not?

RP: The key to managing your boss’ expectations is proactive communication.  Have an ongoing and honest dialogue with your boss about your work and your deliverables. If your boss gives you a set of goals, regularly brief him about your progress, even if he doesn’t ask for it.  Speak openly about the obstacles in your way and seek his help.
If he hasn’t given you any goals, write a set yourself and ask for a meeting to discuss them.  Ask him if achieving these goals would constitute success in his eyes, and if he agrees, use that as a framework to keep him informed about your progress from time to time. And ask for feedback on your performance regularly.
Another good practice is to ask your boss occasionally if the goals are still the right ones, or if your priorities need to change.

EJ: How can we learn from horrible boss experiences to be better leaders ourselves? 

RP: Bad behavior is truly the best teacher.  Ask yourself why your boss is behaving so horribly, and try to understand it deeply.  More often than not, their erratic behavior is caused by a lack of self-awareness.  Humans feel emotional when there is a mismatch between their values and the situation at hand.  Bosses who have no big picture vision can’t understand their emotions, let alone control them – so their behavior is completely unpredictable.  So what can you learn from this? Your boss’ horrible behavior demonstrates how crucial it is to spend time thinking about your own big picture – what you want to do and how you want to achieve it.  It’s a large undertaking that requires an incredible amount of thought and introspection, but I guarantee it’s the best investment you’ll ever make.  You’ll learn to channel your emotional energy toward positive and worthwhile outcomes – and you won’t repeat your boss’ mistakes when it’s your turn to lead.

Emily Jasper is a member of the Brazen Life Contributor Network.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.tonygoddardconsulting.com Tonyjg

    It really is unfortunate if you end up with a horrible boss – a world of stress and depression. But you can make all this alot better by following the advice to ‘be a pro-active communicator’ about your performance and progress. Most bosses want to survive and if you are doing a good job and let them know it they can turn out to be nicer than first thought

    Tony

  • http://www.StartMyConsultingBusiness.com Greg

    Rajeev gives some great advice about how to react/deal with a horrible boss. Like he mentioned, proactive communication is key–even though most of us find it easier to avoid our horrible boss.

    Even so, a bad boss is actually GOOD for you, because you can use your negative emotions to propel you toward something better. Keep thinking about your crazy boss and lousy job each day, and you can motivate yourself to take actions every day that move you to a better situation.

    I made the transition from frustrated employee–with a micromanaging boss–to satisfied business owner. I started a consulting business part-time, and built it into a full-time endeavor which QUADRUPLED my salary.

    I’ve posted about this topic on my blog (http://www.StartMyConsultingBusiness.com), and also discuss practical, concrete things you can do to start and run a successful consulting business, along with tools, tips, tricks, and techniques for automating your business and keeping costs to a minimum.

    Owning my own business has truly changed my life and my worldview. I went from being dependent on a single employer to being independent and knowing that I can produce a reliable income on my own.

    Whether you decide to start your own consulting business as I and lots of others have done, you can use a bad job to propel you toward a better place.

  • Jared

    Great article! You can always find a t shirt printing company like http://www.theprintbar.com or customink or similiar and get the entire workplace to wear custom t shirts encouraging the boss to behave in a more positive way?

  • http://twitter.com/edsiusa EDSI

    Good, levelheaded advice, especially the part about learning how to become a better leader from a horrible boss experience.

  • http://www.otogaraj.net Otogaraj

    Amazing Article. Thanks Emily.

  • Mary Foley

    Those are some great tips on dealing with a difficult situation. I always try to remind my clients NOT to take it Personally. Let’s face it. Creating the habit of not taking it personally isn’t easy. But it’s so worth it. Because if you do, you will save yourself a lot of time, a lot of frustration, and maybe even a little heartache.

  • Pingback: 5 Signs of Passive-Aggressive Management: Why It Kills Employee Motivation and How to Deal – Self-Help And Development