How to Survive a Bad Boss

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Does anyone know better than Dilbert about life with a bad boss? Of course, when people say they have a bad boss, they mean different things.

Among the signs of bad bosses, from a website aptly named “Living Dilbert,” are bosses who tell you to cc them on all email messages, and when you do, they ask why you just sent them that email. Then when you stop emailing them, you hear “Well, why didn’t you just email me?”

It can be miserable to have a boss who takes all the credit, treats employees harshly, micromanages, abruptly changes priorities, or never provides direction. And there’s apparently no lack of bad bosses. Almost 80 percent of the employees surveyed in one study identified their boss as a lousy manager. And almost 70 percent in that study said their immediate superior had "no clue" how to become a good manager.

In most bad-boss situations, your choices include changing the boss, changing the company, adapting to the situation, or leaving the organization. Of course, some bosses don’t even know they’re functioning poorly. So before you do anything drastic, consider talking to your boss. Calmly describe what you need in terms of direction, feedback, and support. Ask how you can help your boss meet his goals and then do what you can to provide the needed assistance.

In addition, do some analysis to help your boss achieve the stated goals. Consider, for example, your boss’s goals and interests, what he values, how he takes in information and makes decisions, and what issues are of greatest concern.

If steps like these don’t help, you may have to look into transferring within the organization, or, when circumstances permit, finding a new job. In the meantime, think twice, or maybe three or four times, about going over the boss’s head or taking the problem to HR. Either move might be exactly what’s needed—or you might be endangering your job.

If all else fails, or even if it doesn’t, try to learn from your bad boss—what a boss shouldn’t do and where you can become stronger. As those who specialize in clichés are fond of saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

A recent survey asked about the most important traits for a boss to possess. Among the results were leading by example, strong ethics, overall competence, and recognition of employees. Managers, are you listening?

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to have a bad boss, how did you cope?

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.