Two recent surveys, one by La Salle Network in 2016 and another by Gallup in 2017, suggest that more than fifty per cent of us have worked for a lousy boss. In the case of Gallup, they identified that only twenty-one per cent of workers thought that their performance was "managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work." While a light comedy may be an amusing way to pass a couple of hours, most of us spend two thousand hours at work each year, so working for a horrible boss is no laughing matter.

But there are strategies to reduce the mental stress associated with working for a poor manager.

At the outset, it’s worth reflecting on why you think you may be working for a terrible boss. Before taking any action, observe how they go about things, what do they do well, what other factors might be in play and whether you understand the underlying reasons for these issues. Be generous in your praise and be slow to jump to conclusions: most people have redeeming features and a balanced assessment will reflect as well on you as on them.

If things still look worrying, you need to identify what type of bad boss you have. The first thing is to establish a baseline by asking three simple questions of your manager:

  1. How would you like me to communicate with you?
  2. What are your priorities in the next three months?
  3. What should I avoid doing; what ticks you off?

This straightforward approach will get you off to a good start. Whatever type of boss they are, you will now have a better idea of what to do next.

There are five principal terrible boss types, for each, let’s look at the core behaviour and how best to deal with it.

The ghost boss is never there and certainly doesn’t have time to explain what they want in any detail.  They may have been in the business for some time, enjoy travelling and spend most of their time out of the office. At best, decisions get made by the team; at worst, there are no decisions at all.  When it comes to speaking up for the group in a senior management meeting, don’t expect too much from a ghost.

This kind of boss provides an excellent opportunity if you can step up into the role:  not only will the team love you, but senior management will appreciate what you’re trying to do.  You may not get the job when they leave (that’s nearly always the eventual outcome for this type), but the experience you gain will put you in good stead.

The Seagull Manager usually arrives with a great deal of screeching, and either departs quickly leaving a mess or grabs the one piece of good work you are doing and claims it for themselves. They often forget what they asked you to do and never remember even the important things they were required to do for the team.   Generally, seagull-managed teams live in a state of chaotic confusion.

Here, the best approach is to brief your manager in short, weekly updates by email  and when speaking to your manager keep it short and concise.  Follow up any meetings with an email of the salient points.  Your manager may feel less need to flap in and flap out.  There is one bright side: there’s no micromanagement here.

The incompetent Manager is the most confusing of all to work for. The processes they set up invariably fail, meetings will be chaotic and outcomes missed.   You will see people leave the team to take other jobs elsewhere in the business or go altogether.

When working for an incompetent boss, you need to become the person the organisation turns to for information and insight from the team: you must become that go-to person for everyone.  The good news is that pretty much everyone will appreciate the issue and taking a leadership role in such a group will be noticed.

The Micromanager spends too much time supervising the minor details in the work of their direct reports and will often fail to see the critical and more significant broader picture.  Micromanagers always mistake activity for achievement.

The strategy here is to pre-empt their behaviour, understand the rhythm and style of the business and get your work in before they feel the need to interfere.  Make your emails very clear and straightforward – remember they will probably feel swamped by detail.  A top tip is to make sure you subject-line the email clearly to show the action, not just the content.

For the Politician Climber/Narcissist, its all about them. You’re a stepping stone to their greatness. Watch out for this type: some are so good that you won’t know how bad things were until they’ve moved on.  Rarely do they ask for feedback on their performance, because in their own eyes they are already a perfect manager. They take all the credit for things well done and none of the blame when they go wrong.

The only strategy here is to humour them, compliment them for their advice and keep them well informed by email.  Make sure you refer to your boss by name when talking to clients or their more senior managers, as they like to feel important.  Above all, make them believe that they’re in complete control.  The good news is that people will know that this is your work and no one can accuse you of taking the credit.  You will end up looking efficient and humble.  If you are a very good subordinate to a politician, and you’re happy working for such a person, should they get promoted, they will likely take you along.

Whatever your manager’s type, there are three things you should do with  all of them, excellent or poor:

  • Document everything: make sure you have a copy of all the essential contract stuff, bonus requirements, objectives and numbers
  • Communicate: make sure you regularly ask the three ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions highlighted above
  • Understand your own personal brand: never mirror your bad boss’s behaviour. All too often, people use a bad boss as an excuse for their own second-rate behaviour. Rather, you must stay above it all. Remember to ask others how you’re doing; you can then judge the state of your brand.

It’s never fun working for a terrible boss, but the evidence suggests that most of us are going to find ourselves doing just that at some stage. Good luck – and remember there is always something you can do to redress the situation.

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