Think You Have a Bad Boss?

Figuring out what's really going on and what to do about it

Posted Mar 16, 2016

Tumisu, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Tumisu, Pixabay, Public Domain

"I hate my boss!" A number of my clients have said that to me.

And with sitcoms, movies, and even the news media highlighting bosses' evils, it's temping to place all blame on those greedy, mean monsters.

But my job as a career coach often requires me to dig beneath a client's claim. That can reveal a more complicated picture.

Indeed, some bosses are intrinsically evil, incompetent, and/or lazy. But fact is, people don't get selected to be the boss at  random. On average, they're picked because, compared with the average worker bee, they're smarter, more skilled, harder working, and/or emotionally more together.

So let's look at five types of bosses that employees tend to hate and instead of just writing them off as jerks, let's consider why they might be behaving the way they do.

The angry boss. Sure, some angry bosses merely are power-hungry hotheads who enjoy managing by intimidation. But some angry bosses have reasons. Might any of these apply to your situation?

  • His/her job is difficult or frustrating--for example, unrealistic expectations from his or her boss.
  • S/he's frustrated by the work group's poor performance or attitude.
  • S/he has family problems and the pressure is just too much.
  • You: poor quality or quantity of work, your thinking you're smarter than you are, laziness, excessive complaining, frequent absences or lateness?

Sure, if your boss were perfect, s/he'd always maintain Obama/Kasich-like equanimity rather than Trumpish volatility. But most bosses aren't that good. How confident are you that you'd be as good as you wish your boss were?

If you think it might be worthwhile, take a look inward and ask yourself whether you give your boss reason for being frustrated with you? If you don't know, ask others for feedback. If you're concerned they won't be honest, send them an anonymous Talent Checkup.

The micromanaging boss. If a boss micromanages most or all supervisees, it suggests the boss's abilities are so superior as to justify the micromanagement or that s/he fails to recognize the costs of micromanaging: demotivating employees and the opportunity cost: what s/he otherwise could be doing.

If however, you are being singled out for micromanagement, again it may be time for you to look inward. For example, without your boss's watchful eye, would your work be of lower quality or quantity?

The boss with poor people management skills. A boss must be able to devise and implement individualized strategies to motivate team members--for example, when to be tactful, when to be blunt, when to closely manage, when to give freedom.

It's difficult to teach people such a skill. It's an art. An MBA is no guarantor of it. And because people management is so difficult to improve, if your boss's people management skills are weak, you'll probably have to accept that or leave your job.

It's easier said than done but try to remember that your boss was promoted to that position for a reason. S/he must have other attributes. Try not to let his/her lack of people skills blind you to your boss's other attributes and/or demotivate you.

The low-productivity boss. As mentioned earlier, most people get selected to be a boss because they're above average in productivity. And when a boss isn't, it's rarely because of laziness unless the person got the position for a non-merit reason (sleeping with a higher-up, to check-off a demographic box, etc) 

There is no antidote to a lazy boss other than to organize your co-workers to try to get him/her fired or transferred. But more often, the boss only appears unproductive: You may not see much of his/her work: the work s/he does for his/her boss or other stakeholders. Or the research, thinking or other preparation for the few minutes s/he may speak at a meeting.

So if you're frustrated with a boss who doesn't seem to be getting much work done, especially if you think it's affecting your productivity and you don't want to accept that, consider tactfully offering to help. For example, "Joe, it seems you have a lot on your plate so that for example, when I email you, it can take days to get a response. Sometimes I get no response. Is there anything I can do to make your life easier?"

The unethical boss.  I wish I could say that whistleblowing pays but many suffer reprisals. I've had two clients tell higher-ups about what they perceived as their boss's ethical lapse and in both cases, the employee was gone within a year. In both instances, the employer was careful to skirt the Whistleblower Protection Act: In one instance, the employer monitored the employee for a year at which point the employee made a significant mistake, which created just enough grounds for termination. The other client became part of the next group layoff to ensure it didn't 't look like retaliation.

It may be wise to ignore minor ethical lapses--for example, a boss padding his/her expense account. The risk/benefit ratio is poor. However, if it's something serious---for example, you discover that your boss has authorized a factory to release cancer-causing chemicals into the water supply, it seems to me worth even getting fired. To reduce that risk, do try to do your whistleblowing as a team. There is power in numbers.

The takeaway

Again, yes, there are some bosses that simply are bad. But the media pendulum has swung to blame bosses for everything and supervisees for nothing. This article is a small effort to restore a measure of balance.

So if you are an employee who hates his/her boss, do you want to take a look inward and see if you're at least partly responsible?

And if you're a boss, do you see yourself as one of the above: an angry boss,  micromanaging boss, poor people manager, low-productivity boss, or unethical one? If so, is it justified or is there anything you'd like to change about yourself?

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.