8 strategies for handling a bad boss

A friend of mine recently went through a bad few months dealing with a bully boss. She was miserable, and wasn’t sure how to handle the situation.

If this is happening to you, here are 8 strategies for dealing with a boss who is a jerk.

Ask yourself if the problem is actually you.

Is your boss a jerk, or are you? Are you oversensitive or resistant to taking direction and criticism? Could you be doing a better job? Does your boss have good reason to be frustrated with you? I don’t know you. But you do. Do some self assessment and give yourself an honest answer.

Be sympathetic.

Maybe your boss is under a lot of pressure. Poop travels downhill, as we know, and if your boss is getting stress from above, it’s naturally going to come down on you. Does that make it right? No. But a little bit of empathy and understanding can go a long way. Could the situation be temporary? Try being patient and supportive and doing your job as best you can for a while. Also, try seeing your boss as a peer, instead of an authority figure. That doesn’t mean they aren’t in charge or deserving of respect, but remember that your boss is a real person with problems, just like you.

Kill them with kindness.

Be nice to your boss, no matter how terrible they are to you. Give them compliments. Smile. Be gracious. Kindness is contagious, and this might change their behaviour towards you. Or it might drive them nuts. Either way, nobody will be able to fault your behaviour.

Don’t let it get to you.

The previous point is an important one. Your behaviour should be above reproach, so that people can’t point to you as the problem (now that we’ve established that you’re not). This means gritting your teeth and biting your tongue when you want to snap back. It means smiling through the pain. It means not complaining to your coworkers, which is unprofessional and can get you in trouble if they decide to use it against you (trust no one). Take nothing personally.

Talk it out.

If being patient and kind doesn’t work, and your boss continues to be a bully, you can try doing something about it. Call a meeting with your boss to have a chat. There are a few ways to approach that chat. One is to ask for insight and advice. People love to be asked for advice. It strokes their ego, and as a result the person you ask for advice likes you better because they think you must be very smart for asking their opinion. You might ask them how they feel a particular project they’ve been giving you trouble about is progressing, and how they think it could be better moved forward. You boss might either give good insight, or realize through talking out their own ideas where the issue lies, and that it isn’t with you.

Another way is to lay your cards on the table. Say that you feel they’re unhappy with the way a specific thing is going, or with aspects of your performance. Ask to talk about how you can improve this situation. Avoid making accusations and being confrontational. Your boss might have no idea their behaviour is affecting you, and this is a gentle way of putting it out there. Be prepared, however, for them to lay a laundry list of complaints – maybe about you – at your feet. If this happens, instead of arguing or defending yourself, listen. Say thanks, take it away with you, and think about how to approach it later.

Wait for them to quit or get fired.

Talking it out only works if your boss is, in spite of everything, a reasonable person. If the boss is just a tyrant, is dishonest, is stealing credit, or is undermining you in other ways, it’s not going to work. You might try waiting them out. It’s possible that you’re not the only one affected by their behaviour, and that they’ll be fired. Or they might just leave. Ultimately, this is what happened in my friend’s situation. The boss quit.

Go to Human Resources.

I’m not a fan of tattle tales, so this would be a last resort. But if you feel you’re out of options, talking to HR might have some benefit. The HR team may already be aware of the situation and be taking steps to rectify it. But there’s also a good chance it won’t help and will actually make things worse. I worked with a bully boss about whom everyone on my team had spoken to HR about. And nothing was done. Instead of getting fired she got promoted. The HR team consists of employees just like you, and they often don’t actually have much power to affect change. Nor do they necessarily want to. They’re just as likely to be in the SMT’s pocket, and once you’ve opened this door, there’s no closing it. If a situation has gotten so bad that you’re complaining to Human Resources, you should probably start looking for another job.

Quit.

It’s hard to walk away from a job, especially when you feel that you shouldn’t have to. But if it’s not going to get better, you should leave. Don’t do it on a whim, or scream “That’s it!!! I can’t take this anymore!” and storm out. Line something else up first. Try not to quit one job until you find another. Do it graciously and professionally. But do, on your exit interview, make it clear that you are leaving because of your boss. Emphasize the things you like about the company, to highlight the point.

Then walk away and don’t look back. You tried. All you can do is your best.

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