What If Your Boss Really Is a Jerk?
If you are working for a jerk boss, don't get sucked into their dysfunction.
Posted November 20, 2020
If, after you’ve done the hard work of making sure you are doing everything you possibly can to help your boss manage you, you are convinced that your boss really is a jerk, you might need to start preparing to jump ship. But what if you are not in a position to take that drastic step, or you need to stall for time in order to get yourself into that position?
Or what if the upsides of the job are so great that you want to find a way to mitigate your boss’s jerkiness so that you don’t have to quit? Is there anything you can do?
Here’s an “outer limits” perspective from an executive with many years of experience in the television industry: “You can’t make it too far in our business unless you know how to deal with jerks. I’m talking about colossal jerks, jerks of every variety. I’m talking about guys who will throw a mug full of coffee at you and then throw the mug.”
“The first mistake most people make is losing their cool,” says the wise TV executive. “That’s rule one when it comes to dealing with the jerk boss: Don’t lose your cool. Sometimes you have to remove yourself from the situation so you can calm down and cool off and give the boss a chance to feel bad about being such a jerk. The real rookie move is to get sucked in to the dysfunction and get into a pissing match with your boss. You can’t win that pissing match.”
The TV executive went on to explain that you have to remain professional, no matter how unprofessional the boss might become. You have to remind yourself that it’s not you, it’s nothing personal. Half the battle is staying professional. The other half is to keep talking calmly about the actual work. It’s a big mistake to let the boss’s bad behavior distract you from the work, because you will still be expected to do it. So keep asking for clear instructions—and then go about your business.
He continued: “Know when the boss is likely to be in the best possible mood. Maybe you catch the boss the very next morning and then, notes in hand, go in and ask him if you can clarify some things from your discussion the day before: ‘Did you mean to say this, that or the other thing? Did you really want me to tell so and so to ‘Go off and die’?’”
Never act sarcastic. Treat everything the boss says as if it is serious, write it down, and come back and ask about it the next day. The best-case scenario is that the boss will be reflective and remorseful. He might even apologize and want to talk through what happened.
The key is to not let the boss off the hook easily. You can say, "I knew you weren’t at your best. I knew you were upset." Stay professional. Be clear about what happened, get the boss to acknowledge it, and then ask for clear instructions on how to handle it the next time it might happen… and take notes.
The key is trying to gain some control over the situation and make it better through your own very professional, rational and orderly way of doing business.
This approach is echoed by many experienced, successful professionals in other workplaces that are infamous for tolerating “jerk” bosses. One megastar in the world of investment banking put it this way: “No matter how unprofessional the jerk might be, your best bet is to never blink, never raise your voice, never emit a clue that you are troubled by the boss’s behavior. Just read between the yelling, get your marching orders and go about your business.”
Why put up with a jerk boss? “You have to do the math for yourself,” says the investment banking megastar. “Can you afford to walk away? Or is there so much upside for you in keeping this job that you can’t afford to walk away?”
“Actually,” she explained, “it is much easier to handle the really egregious cases. The anger management cases are one thing… It’s the more subtle jerks that are sometimes harder to figure out.”
Based on our research, I’d have to agree. When a boss is yelling and screaming, it’s obvious which one of you is the jerk. In those situations, you should find a way to get out of there. But sometimes when a boss is behaving like a jerk, their words and actions related to your work are irrational and disorderly, but they are not overtly abusive, and it can be hard to untangle. Who’s really the jerk here? Those cases can be even harder to deal with.
In the more subtle cases, impose as much rationality and orderliness as you can on every interaction. Remain professional, keep your cool, take the boss seriously, keep asking for clear instructions, keep writing things down. If necessary, take a break and come back at a better time to debrief. Review the prior conversation, read from your notes, then ask for clarification of instructions.