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How to Deal With a "Subtle" Jerk Boss

Six examples of subtle jerk boss behavior, and how to handle them.

When your boss is really egregious — say yelling and screaming — it can actually be easier to figure out what to do. Quit. Call the boss on the egregious behavior and insist it not be repeated.

The tougher cases, in some ways at least, are the more subtle cases of “jerk boss” syndrome. When the “jerk boss” behavior is more subtle, stay focused, and impose as much rationality and orderliness as you can on every interaction.

Six Subtle “Jerk Boss” Scenarios and How to Deal With Them

Scenario #1. The boss lets small problems slide, but then comes down like a ton of bricks when one of those small problems gets out of control and causes real damage and cost. This is the single most common jerk boss scenario.

What can you do?

Keep your eyes out for problems of any kind. Ask your boss for clear honest feedback. Think of everything you do and every move you make in your work with this boss as part of a process of continuous improvement. Constantly search for small problems to solve and small improvements that can be made. Keep asking, “What is one thing I could have done better? What is one thing I could do better right now? What is one thing I could do better next time?”

Scenario #2. The boss imposes obsessive preferences on you even though there is no clear business reason.

What can you do?

Work with your boss to spell out the parameters of every task, responsibility, and project you are doing. Sketch out a project plan, a schedule of deliverables, all the specifications, a step-by-step plan of action. If there are standard operating procedures or best practices in place for any of the work in question, have them at the ready and walk through them with the boss to explain exactly what you are going to do and how you are going to do it and why. Then plan to report to the boss at regular intervals, daily or weekly, to keep him apprised of your progress. Take detailed notes. Report back at regular intervals, daily or weekly, to keep the boss apprised of your progress.

Sora Shimazaki/Pexels
Take control of a "subtle" jerk boss scenario by taking detailed notes and asking good questions.
Source: Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

Scenario #3. Your boss starts treating you like a beck-and-call-assistant.

What can you do?

Try to get your boss to give you as many different to-do items as possible in each individual interaction. Your goal is to get them to give you lists of to-do items and larger, more complex tasks so that you have longer and longer timeframes in which you can work independently. Every time your boss engages with you in order to give you an assignment, try to keep the conversation going by asking, “OK. I’ve got that. Then what?” Try to get more responsibility for larger recurring tasks by paying close attention, asking good questions, taking notes, and learning all the steps. Then start anticipating the boss’s micro-needs and cut them off: “You want me to do a, b, c, d, e, and f, right?”

Scenario #4. The boss starts pretending things are up to you when they are not.

What can you do?

Push your boss to spell out every requirement and every expectation for every task, responsibility and project. Ask for rules, regulations, established best practices and standard operating procedures. Ask whether there are any checklists. Ask for examples and work samples on which you can base your work. If none of these tools are available, then make your own plan, your own to-do list, and your own checklist, in writing, and run it by the boss before starting the work.

Scenario #5. The boss isn’t keeping track of what’s going on, but makes big decisions that affect everyone.

What can you do?

Keep your boss informed, and be a very reliable source of honest, accurate, complete information. Be the boss’s eyes and ears on the ground and report to her regularly. Keep her apprised of exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, how, where and when. Report any important information you think they should know. Be a consistent, but always purely professional and businesslike, source of information about what work is being done, by whom, why, how, where and when.

Scenario #6. The boss soft-pedals his authority until something goes terribly wrong and then becomes authoritarian when there is a strong disagreement.

What can you do?

Build authentic rapport with the boss by keeping your conversations focused on the genuine terrain you have in common: the work you do together. Every time your boss tries to shoot the breeze about personal stuff, talk about the work. Ask for guidance, direction and support. Talk about your goals and deadlines, your projects and plans; talk about your performance and what you can improve; talk about your training needs and work conditions; talk about your career aspirations.

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