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Can You Manage Up With a Bad Boss?

You can help modify most bad boss behavior

Image credit: Dreamstime

​Bad bosses have become a pandemic it seems, and perhaps the only comfort is that you’re not alone. But take heart. Assuming your boss isn’t completely intolerable (most bad bosses behave badly episodically)—you can help modify the bad behavior. The best person to manage your boss…is you, because you know best exactly how your boss can be a better manager. It does take time and patience, however, like most things worth accomplishing.

It’s easiest to be reactive and just endure the childish antics, even if they’re occasional bouts. But you are an employee in whom your boss has invested company time and money. You have leverage, especially in this period of positive job growth. You can exercise your ability to mitigate the bad and encourage the good (even though “good” seems like a far off fantasy).

When the alarm sounds, you must be able to quickly reach into your “manage up toolbox.” Know that in order for you to effect change, there must be something in it for your boss. Think parental style discipline.

Bad bosses slip into childish behavior when things go wrong because their power or standing is at risk. They may feel insecure in their own position or engage in petty sandbox politics for a variety of reasons. They need to feel in control again, and you can help by diffusing certain situations and being the voice of reason.

Here are three sanity-saving tips on managing up with a bad boss:

Know Your Boss’s Communication Style

Before you do anything else, examine how you’re communicating with your boss. Does your bad boss, a.k.a., Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT) prefer email, text, talking on the phone, or face-to-face conversations? What time of day is best?

Handling Conflict

When it’s time to address a problem, use what I call “positive bookends”—start and end the conversation on a positive note. For example, “Thanks for meeting with me. I want you to know that I really enjoy the projects I’m working on, as well as working with you. It did set me back a bit when you took away the xyz project this morning with no explanation… (listen and discuss the issue)… Thank you again for spending the time to talk this through. I really appreciate it!”


It’s not always easy to tolerate a difficult supervisor who resembles a sugared-up toddler, but it’s possible, especially when you consider how you’ll be reducing job stress. Just knowing that you’re chipping away at the challenging antics each day, step by step, can help motivate you to continually take charge.

But what kind of boss do you need to manage? The tools are as different as the personalities. Here are three of the most common types of bad and childish bosses—and tips on managing them:


One of the most glaring similarities between “terrible two” toddlers and TOT bosses is that when faced with a situation out of their control, they resort to rage and tantrums. When you see this unfolding, you can take control by taking these measures:

Create a distraction
Diffuse the situation
Be concise
Learn the patterns

When you know your boss is slipping into emotional infancy, do your best to stay out of the lion’s den, despite your need to get approvals or reach out. If you are caught inside, your best bet is to let your boss vent. Inject rational thinking into the conversation, create a distraction, ideally to more positive subjects, take ownership for anything your might have done wrong, and keep your conversation as short as possible.

Watch for patterns, too. Does your boss start his day as Attila the Hun and turn into a little lamp at 5 p.m.? Tuesday mornings are the best time for meetings, and never approach your manager just before lunch. If you’ve witnessed hungry toddlers being dragged down supermarket aisles before lunch or dinner, you get the picture.

Demanding bosses

Your boss’s demanding behavior many stem from a need to control, a desire for perfection, or an inability to empathize. It’s time to:

Set better expectations
Help her prioritize
Let her get buy-in

When your boss gives you a new assignment, give her an estimate of how long it will take and what you need to complete it—before you start working. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, help your boss prioritize projects. In the absence of information, your manager will assume that you are a miracle worker with endless drive…not an employee who’s driven to distraction.

Explain the benefits of your mutual prioritization, and be specific so it’s relatable, e.g., “I want to do the best job and make sure we’re on the same page. For example, if I can focus on the project due this afternoon, I’ll be able to incorporate the research portion into the report. Do you still want that to be included? Benefit: Your boss will see the downside of off-loading too much, and you’re empowering him or her to be part of the solution.

Bosses Who Ignore You

An ignoring boss can feel overwhelmed by the demands placed on him. One way to cope with the nonstop flood of people wanting his time is to duck out and disappear or simply attend to her own priorities while ignoring everyone else’s. If you feel like you’re dealing with “Where’s Waldo?”—there are solutions:

Do some detective work
Repackage your ideas
Schedule regular meetings

It’s very common to fall into a rut with this type of boss and ultimately feel like you’re on a useless treadmill. It’s time to jam the system. First find out the top priority projects for your boss. Bring them up in an email to get his attention and offer ideas. Alternatively, start your communications with great news about your projects, keep your emails short and punchy —and leave room for curiosity so that there’s a reason to meet.

Create meetings that are enjoyable. Allow your boss to engage, have something to present, and try your best to use clever, business-related humor. If what you’re doing isn’t working, stop…and rethink your approach. Observe how others get the boss’s attention and their work approved.

Getting a commitment for a weekly time to meet is ideal. And if you’re prepared each week, all you may need is 10 minutes. You can explain that with a little feedback, your work will go much further.

You do have power…it’s just whether you’re prepared to put in a little time to manage up. It is a much more promising task than biding time until your boss has reached sainthood.