Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Why Can’t We Get Rid of Our Boss From Hell?

Can I get my horrible boss fired?

Do you have a boss who is a nightmare? Is your boss incompetent? A tyrant, who makes your workplace a stress factory? Do you wonder why they don't fire your boss-from-hell? Here is why (and what you can do about the situation):

The boss is "untouchable." There are many reasons why your boss may be "untouchable." Nepotism is one reason (he or she is related to the owner or someone higher up in the organization). In the academic world, tenure means that it is almost impossible to fire someone, so there are plenty of "bosses from hell" in university laboratories and administrative posts. In very bureaucratic organizations, seniority often rules, and a boss-from-hell can become so entrenched that the higher ups are simply determined to wait until the person retires.

His/her boss doesn't want to admit a hiring mistake. Often an obviously terrible supervisor is not fired or demoted because his/her boss doesn't want to look bad or admit that he/she made a bad decision. Instead, the whole organization has to suffer. This is why I've mentioned before that a do-nothing boss can just as bad as a boss-from-hell.

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I know of one case where the department head refuses to let his employees use state-of-the-art technology because he doesn't use, or even understand, the new technology. As a result, the entire department is less productive and the entire organization will suffer. His boss doesn't take action out of fear that the blame will fall on him ("You hired the incompetent manager").

Conflict avoidance. All too often, superiors won't fire bad bosses because they simply want to avoid the confrontation. This is particularly insidious because the entire organization suffers an incompetent or bullying supervisor simply because the superior lacks the courage to do what needs to be done.

I know of a couple of cases where a boss-from-hell is suffering from substance abuse and/or dementia, and supervisors refuse to act because they fear the confrontation (and the backlash from friends of the boss-from-hell).

HR incompetence and fear of litigation. Sometimes HR managers won't do their job despite employee complaints because they are afraid of being sued by the fired boss, or they simply don't realize that their role is to make sure that personnel are productive and protected ("We can't do anything.").

So, if you are suffering under a boss-from-hell, what can you do?

Document everything. Keep a diary of every mistake, blunder, bad decision, and instance of bad behavior (bullying, unprofessional conduct, abuse) your boss commits. Go to superiors and to human resources with the evidence and make formal complaints. However, beware the backlash!

Safety in numbers. Get the support of others. It is all too easy for superiors or HR to see the person lodging the complaint as "the problem." But it becomes more difficult to do this if a number of employees are also complaining.

Be direct and be persistent. Don't pussyfoot around. Call out the boss's bad behavior or incompetence, and don't relent. All too often, people get discouraged when they complain and immediate action doesn't follow. Realize that this is not a battle, but a long, and potentially drawn out, war.

Prepare for the backlash. As I've noted, be prepared to be viewed as the "bad guy" or "the problem." Getting rid of a boss-from-hell takes courage and hard work in many cases, so you should be ready to take the heat, and perhaps even risk your job. Realize that you may lose, so have a "Plan B" or "escape route."

There is no excuse for a boss-from-hell, so realize that your efforts to remove that person is, in the long run, the right thing to do, and it will have positive outcomes for you, your suffering colleagues, and the organization.

Follow me on Twitter:
http://twitter.com/#!/ronriggio

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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