Posted on by & filed under career advice, leadership.

When you work building training and education for employees (like we do at Popforms) , you spend a lot of time talking with people about their challenges at work. And one thing I hear over and over again is the recurring story of a bad boss or manager.

The story always begins with some egregious thing their manger has done, or hasn’t done, and it ends with all the things their boss should be doing to make changes. It is always the boss who is the jerk, who takes credit they didn’t earn, and who doesn’t give people a chance.

But here’s the thing:

If you have a bad boss, it is your fault, and it is up to you to fix it.

Now you may be thinking I can’t possibly know your boss; I can’t know how bad they are or what awful things they do. However, while I may not know your boss, I have heard a lot of these stories, and without exception, part of the problem lies on the shoulders of the person who feels their terrible boss is the problem.

I actually have had my own share of terrible managers. I had one that used to refer to people as types of dogs, and one that used to demand we all come in to work on a Saturday while he went wine tasting. Trust me, I know bad bosses.

However, the fact of the matter is this: a bad boss is your problem to fix.

Honestly I wish someone had given me this article that I am writing now 10 years ago when I was struggling with a bad manager (and I ultimately left that job because of the manager).  I wish I had known then how much better my life and career could have been if I took responsibility for my relationship with my leader.

Take ownership of the problem

If your boss is making your life miserable, the first thing you need to do is accept the fact that the only way things will change is if you make the changes.

People don’t change.

And your manager is in their position for a reason (at some point they had some success that managed to land them the job). Chances are they have been doing this job, supervising people, and managing teams this way for at least some time.

People (especially those that have been doing things a certain way for a while) are not particularly inclined to make changes without a good reason, and even if you think you have a good case, it will be unlikely you can convince your boss to change without a lot of friction.

After all, what would you think if someone walked up to you one day and told you the way you drive is wrong? Would you think it was worth it to you to completely change something you’ve been doing one way for over a decade, just because someone said so?

Humans just don’t like change that much, and it is incredibly hard to convince someone that you know better than they do when it comes to how they do things.

However, friction can work if you are committed to a cause. If you want to try to force your boss to change anyways, you have some options. The thing about these options is that they take time, typically months or years, so you shouldn’t go in expecting immediate results.

Things that cause enough friction for bosses to make changes:

Having multiple good people leave the team. Most of the time when people leave, they don’t want to rock the boat and so many of them won’t cite the bad boss as the reason. This means that it takes a high volume of people leaving for it to be noticeable.

The other operative word in the above situation is “good” – many times a bad boss will characterize departing employees as “in the middle”, making it unclear if good people are actually leaving.  In fact, top performers are usually taken care of and nurtured even by bad bosses, so they don’t always want to leave. Meaning: this can take a pretty long time to be a telling signal and convince bad bosses to make changes.

Work not getting done. Over enough time, if projects aren’t successful or aren’t as successful as other teams, your bad boss will likely get a bad review, or a few bad reviews and decide he or she needs to make some adjustments. The problem is that most of these outcomes can take many months to years to show since a boss’ true impact can be very hard to observe in a multi-month timeframe.

And of course, you don’t want to sabotage projects or create problems that cause things to be delayed, just to make your boss look back. This almost always comes back to you – and you want your reputation to always be that of someone who adds value, not who will do whatever it takes to get what they want.

Having people the bad boss trusts help them make changes. When someone you admire or respect tells you that you need to change, you are going to be much more open to hearing what they have to say.

Ah yes, now we are getting somewhere – wouldn’t it be awesome if you were a person that your boss trusted and respected such that they would listen to you and make adjustments? This is your ultimate goal and the whole point of this article.

Before I get into the solutions, though, I wanted to dispel one course of action that seems to be very popular, but is ultimately a career limiting move – complaining to your boss’ boss.

Don’t talk to their boss.

First, it likely won’t do any good. If you use my favorite analogy of relationships being like filmstrips, then your boss is going to have a much longer filmstrip with their manager and this means their manager is going to have a higher trust relationship with them.

Your manager’s manager has a stronger relationship with them than with you. Why should they trust you more than this person they know so well – and maybe even promoted into this role?

But perhaps more importantly, when you complain up the chain it makes you look like someone who can’t handle or resolve their own problems, and people like that seldom get promoted.  Therefore, you then don’t just create a negative frame in your relationship filmstrip with your boss’ boss, but you also show your lack of ability in navigating tough personal situations to people with lots of influence over the future of your career.

[ Exception: if you boss is breaking the law or crossing the line, you should go to HR or their boss – but in most cases this is truly the exception. In fact, I would encourage you to get your own lawyer if something truly unlawful is going on. ]

You are responsible for your career

And that means you are the one that is accountable for your relationship with your boss. This may sound awful, but it is actually a good thing.

You are the one that cares the most about your career, your work environment and your life. Be glad it is in your hands.

Let’s talk strategy for dealing with a difficult boss.

You own the relationship.

How you interact and communicate with your manager is your responsibility. If you currently have tense interactions, try to really assess why that may be the case?

  • Are you sure you are working on the right work?
  • Have you screwed up in the past and caused problems for your manager?
  • Is your team in trouble and your boss is under a lot of undue stress?
  • Do you feel like they don’t recognize the work that you are doing?

I could keep going with these questions, but the interesting thing about each of them is that they all have a solution that you are able to solve.

Make your relationship with your boss a great one.

If you aren’t communicating, or you are avoiding them (since that is what our natural tendency seems to be when we have a strained relationship) then you are only hurting yourself.

If you want to improve the relationship, the first step is to start generating some positive frames in your filmstrip with them. This means making sure you have 1:1s, that you send emails that leave a positive impression (such as an awesome status report), and that you are doing a great job with your assignments.

First focus on building a great relationship, then focus on the fixing the problems.

Once you have a great relationship and your boss sees you as an ally (instead of an undermining subordinate who complains all the time and clearly isn’t happy in their job), they will be much more open to hearing your ideas and making changes.

In fact, many people find that when they try to turn their boss into a friend, and start treating them with respect, working proactively to find solutions instead of commiserating and complaining, that much of the strain and challenges in their relationship actually just disappear.

Their boss has a better idea of their contributions, values their presence, and the positive attitude brings everyone involved up.  And pretty soon you are one of the most valuable people on the team.

Agree?  Disagree?  Have other strategies and ideas?  Leave them in the comments.

Tags: bad boss, change, communication, fear, goals, relationships, trust,

7 Responses to “Your bad boss is your problem, and it’s on you to fix it.”

  1. Oncle Tom

    I totally agree on the ownership of the responsability.

    And it applies to sooooo many other kind of relationships too: peers in the office, your landlord and even the person constantly bullying you in the bus.

    So far, the best way I’ve found to defuse the problem is… *asking questions*. Like, it solves (almost) everything in life.
    By going in the same direction as the *problematic person* (the *problem* word is only a concern for the deprived edge of the relationship), it enables to generate an opportunity of solving the conflict.

    This is easier to gets angry and be proud to maintain a position but this is a blocker, not a solver.

    Great article as always (even though I don’t comment often).
    Give a go to “The Conflict” of Georg Simmel if you haven’t read it yet :-)

  2. Joe McCarthy

    This is an interesting and provocative post. I’m surprised to be the first person to post a comment.

    I generally agree with the idea of taking ownership – of actions, problems, relationships and careers – and the persistent resistance to change many of us (bosses and bossed) naturally exhibit.

    However, I would quibble with the tweetable phrasing above that a bad boss is the fault of the bossed. I believe any actions taken by a boss are the responsibility of that boss. I would argue that the 12-step slogan of the 3 Cs – “didn’t Cause it, can’t Control it, can’t Cure it” – applies in all relationships, and is very well aligned with much of what you’ve written here (aside from the attribution of blame), as you recommend focusing on potential actions that are within one’s control.

    I also generally agree with the recommendation to make a relationship as positive as possible, although I would again invoke the wisdom of the 12 steps in defining and maintaining appropriate boundaries about what is acceptable behavior (sometimes it’s better to “change your job or change your job”, rather than trying to change your relationship with a boss who is abusive or consistently ignoring boundaries.

    The observation that “Your manager’s manager has a stronger relationship with them than with you” is an important and often overlooked consideration, the ignorance of which – to me – reflects a lack of empathy, or an unwillingness to think about how the world (including the bossed) might look to one’s boss (or one’s boss’s boss).

    I often find that when I’m challenged with any relationship problem – personal or professional – my immediate reaction is to focus on my self (and wrongs done unto me, or rights not done unto me), but if/when I take the time to think about how the other person might be seeing things – or the wrongs that might have been done unto him or her – I can better respond (vs. react) in appropriate ways.

    I’m reminded of an insight articulated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

    “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

    • private

      Brilliant, logical well thought-out response Joe. If your manager hustled her way into a job he or she cannot do the basic job and continues to demonstrate lack of basic KSAs and experience it is not a staff members fault. The department gets bad press internally and misses year end results.The staff member did not hire the individual. The company suffers and projects are put at risk increasing costs and reducing revenue. Imagine if an incompetent boss interfaced with clients – disaster! The article lends to a para-professional type of job that is hourly not a degreed, experienced mid-level career top performer.
      My motto has always been to think before you speak and think twice before you publish. Bias article with an odd perspective.

    • katemats

      Thanks so much for the comment Joe. Perhaps you are right and that tweetable phrases aren’t the best ones…

      I agree with most of what you said. I have met a lot of people who blame their boss and then allow themselves to be miserable in their own careers, feeling like a victim of their circumstances.
      Yes, it is awful to have a bad boss, especially one who may even be less competent in their role than you would be – but I think the key (and the point of my article) is to help people see that they can control some things – and that if they aren’t going to quit, the best thing they can do is take steps to make that relationship better.

      Thanks again,

  3. Ian Wilder

    Seems like terrible, blame the victim, type of advice. Yes, there are people who are responsible for the bad relationships with their boss, but there are also people who should never have responsibility to manage other people. Managing just gives them the opportunity to have their own character defects writ large. They are a disaster managing their own work load and abusive to their staff becuase of the manager’s own self-created problems.

    • katemats

      That may be true. Did you read the article though? While the title might justify your comment, I would ask you – what should someone do when they have a bad boss?

      I think the recommendations are still smart ones that would be helpful in most circumstances.

  4. Al

    This may be true in some cases but what about the ones where you have already done all of these things and exhausted all the avenues of genuinely trying to make nice, cooperate, and work proactively? Some bosses simply should not be in the positions they’re in. Some are incompetent and cultivate a terrible work environment for everyone.