The Bad Boss Happens To Everyone, So You Have To Develop A PlanWE’VE ALL been there at one time or another: stuck with a boss who is moody, tyrannical, uncommunicative, Machiavellian or just plain incompetent, a boss who seems to have emerged, full-blown, from the darkest recesses of Dilbert’s nightmares.
You can always quit. But what if you really like the company? Why should you let one jerk chase you off? So let’s keep resignation as a last resort for now. But you can’t let the problem linger too long. “If you’re in a bad situation for more than two years, you’ve been dumbed down. You’re already part of the problem,” says Bill Lundin, a clinical psychologist who wrote “When Smart People Work for Dumb Bosses.”
Bad bosses come in many varieties. In “Crazy Bosses,” the pseudonymous Stanley Bing defines five specific types: bully (management by terror), paranoid (locks himself in his office for three months), bureaucrazy (can be either a wimp or an “organizational fascist”), narcissist (sees those around him as “tiny flecks in the majestic spectacle that is his life story”) and disaster hunter (when “all the crazy vapors come together”).
Let me add a couple of others: the love bug, a New Age boss who is so busy nurturing and encouraging you that he neglects to mention you’re about to be fired for poor performance; and the obsessive-compulsive, who seeks perfection, works until you drop, calls you on Sunday mornings to chat about next week’s work and is unable to savor triumphs for more than a nanosecond before starting to worry about what could go wrong next.
Shailendra Gupta worked for a brilliant technician at a consulting firm. But brilliance often breeds arrogance. With this manager, Mr. Gupta recalls, you could never win an argument. His control extended to paper clips-he preferred square ones, and the commonplace oval ones were verboten.
TO MANAGE this disagreeable boss, Mr. Gupta recruited other managers who were in the boss’s good graces to pitch proposals. When the boss objected to a potential new hire that the staff liked, he and other managers used reverse psychology, saying they now agreed with the boss. “It wasn’t two seconds before he flipped and said to hire the guy,” recalls Mr. Gupta, now a consultant with Ernst & Young.
But tricks will get you only so far. In retrospect, Mr. Gupta feels he should have suppressed his ego, avoided confrontations and worked harder to befriend the man outside the office.
“I was one of those kind of people who’d say, ‘Why doesn’t he understand?'” Mr. Gupta says. “Maybe my role should have been to coach him so he could understand.”
The former chief financial officer of a manufacturing company says he worked for a boss who was such a penny pincher that he routinely fired people just before their bonuses came due. He also charges that the boss pressured subordinates to fudge financial figures.
The former executive says he quickly learned the importance of developing allies throughout the company. “I’d work on the side with guys in other departments so we’d all have our act together” when we pitched him a plan, he says. Even if it doesn’t always work, the company of fellow sufferers provides stress-relieving solace.
The executive also learned to fight another day. Instead of engaging in life-and-death struggles, he would often back off on an issue, file it away and revive it a few months later after gathering more supporting data.
SOMETIMES, unfortunately, you just have to get out. As an advertising manager for a consumer-products manufacturer, Dick Rosen’s boss constantly second-guessed and bullied his staff. Mr. Rosen recalls a nasty incident over an alleged grammatical error in some ad copy. When proved wrong, the boss didn’t even apologize. “You had to do it his way or it wasn’t correct,” Mr. Rosen says.
The mistake Mr. Rosen made was lingering for five years before leaving. He survived that long by anticipating his boss’s inevitable objections, even if it meant wasting time on irrelevant issues.
He says he felt like “a battered wife,” and like a battered wife he stayed too long, hoping things would change. Going over his boss’s head wouldn’t have helped, he says. “People say you can go to the boss above them,” he notes. “But the company generally knows you have a bad manager and chooses not to do anything about it.”
He finally found contentment as a divisional vice president at Spiegel, the catalog company, which he recently left after several years. He now runs the package division of Ambrosi & Assoc., a retail and catalog advertising company in Chicago.
Sometimes, though, having a bad boss isn’t such a bad deal. Lisa Grace was the head teller for a bank branch whose technically oriented manager was sadly miscast. “He didn’t know the business and didn’t want to take time to learn it,” she says. “He spent most of his time rewiring the building.”
As a result, Ms. Grace and a friend who managed customer service got to run the bank, make his sales calls and attend training seminars he shunned.“He seldom questioned anything,” says Ms. Grace, now a mortgage broker in Fort Myers, Fla. There were times the women wished he would carry his weight, but, Ms. Grace says, nonmanagers are better than micromanagers. “You just have to work around them,” she says. “You can have the opportunity to do their job and learn a great deal and prepare yourself for a better position of success across automotive, manufacturing, and management consulting. By Hal Lancaster, Wall Street Journal, Feb 9, 1999