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.