10 ways to deal with a bad boss


At one point or another, you will have a bad boss. Maybe your boss won’t be like the one in Dilbert, but still he or she might make your work difficult. Here are some tips to help you cope.

1: Avoid responding in kind

If your boss acts like a jerk, becomes abusive, or is freaking out, your initial impulse might be to do the same thing. Fight that temptation, hard though it might be. Repaying “evil for evil” accomplishes nothing and only makes the situation worse. If you maintain your professionalism, it will make a positive impression on those who are watching or those who hear about it — including possibly your boss’s boss.

Here’s an extreme example, but one based on a true incident. Suppose you’ve just sat down at a restaurant with your boss, and the latter becomes agitated that there are no menus. Rather than get agitated yourself, perhaps because the boss is blaming you for the lack of menus, try to stay calm and simply say, “Boss, the menus are on the way.” Repeat as often as necessary.

2: Document your work

Keep track of your accomplishments and of compliments you get from co-workers or managers of other departments. Record the date of these incidents. When documenting these items, try to record as well the significance of the accomplishment. What problem existed at the time? What would have happened had you not acted? How did your action have a positive effect on the entire organization? Keep this information on a system other than your work computer or company network – that is, keep it in a place where you can still access it even if you leave or are terminated.

3: Use objective measures

When documenting your accomplishments, try to use objective measurements. If you’re on a help desk, for example, “I resolved that ticket promptly” is a meaningless statement. However, “I resolved that ticket in three hours, compared to the departmental average of five hours,” carries more credibility. If you’re in a call center, similarly, a statement that “I answered 80% of my calls within the second ring” is preferable to “I answered my calls promptly.”

4: Confront with evidence

It’s easy for a boss to yell at you based on statements you yourself make. It’s harder if you confront the boss with detailed data, in particular data that has objective measures. So when your boss complains that you’re not answering calls promptly, share your data. In doing so, you’re telling the boss implicitly (or, if you’re brave enough) explicitly, “Boss, you can be angry all you want, but the data favors my position.”

5: Be clear about performance measurements

The objective measurements are also important when you are setting your performance measurements. Having subjective standards makes it easier for your boss to rate you poorly. Having objective standards, assuming you’re doing your job and meeting them, makes it harder for the boss to do so.

6: Keep your network active

Maintain your connections with other people in your company, or even outside your company. Stay active with alumni from your school or college. Be active in community affairs. Doing so keeps you visible and can help you find another job in the event you decide you need to or you’re forced to part ways with your boss.

7: Don’t burn bridges

If you do part ways with your boss, you might be tempted to “unload,” given that you have nothing left to lose. Fight that temptation and try to be gracious. Did you learn anything at all of value from the boss? In particular, was there a time when you thought the boss was wrong, but it turned out the boss was right? Say so. Though not impossible, it would be really hard for even a bad boss to react negatively to such statements by you.

Being gracious will make a huge impression on others. Besides, you never know if you might run into that boss again later in your career.

8: Learn from the experience

A corollary to Murphy’s Law tells us that “Nothing is ever a waste of time. It can always serve as a bad example.” In your case, take some time to analyze why your boss is a bad boss. Just keep in mind that people have different perspectives. Your boss might be reacting to factors and influences you might be unaware of. While that fact doesn’t excuse bad behavior, it can explain it. In any event, doing such analysis can help you if you later become a boss, because you’ll have figured out what NOT to do.

9: Use humor to cope

Humor is a great way to deal with unpleasant situations — hence the need, in movies and television, for comic relief following a tense scene. Rather than be upset about a past encounter, try laughing about it. You could even take it one step further. For example, you could predict what area the boss will first be upset about tomorrow or what time the boss will first become upset that day, then comparing your prediction with what actually happens. While it could be politically risky, you could even start an office pool with co-workers who have the same difficulties – such as establishing an over-and-under on the number of times the boss blows up.

10: Be careful when talking to the boss’s boss

Do not slander a servant to his master, or he will curse you, and you will pay for it.

You may have a chance for a one-on-one meeting with your boss’s superior. If so, that person might ask about your boss. Be careful what you say. Be aware, in particular, that criticism of your boss could be taken as criticism of your boss’s boss and could cause you even more problems. Remember the old saying, “Don’t criticize your wife’s judgment. Look who she married.”

If you do choose to say anything at all about your boss, focus on the behavior rather than the person. Rather than say, “[Boss] is really disorganized,” it’s probably better, if you say anything at all, to say, “It’s hard to focus when priorities keep changing.” But a far safer alternative is to encourage any desirable behavior from your boss. For example, you could say, “Boss’s practice of doing [x] really helps us. I hope he/she keeps doing that.”