What If You Work for a Bad Leader?

About once a week I get an email from someone who wants to know how to work for a bad leader. Maybe their boss is a jerk. Maybe he is just incompetent. Regardless, they are not quite sure how to lead well in this kind of situation.

A Businessman Yelling at an Employee -Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/francisblack, Image #11854358

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/francisblack

Though I eventually became a CEO, I spent most of my corporate years in middle management. I had my share of bad bosses. A few were very difficult. I imagined myself quitting or at least giving them a good tongue-lashing. Others were incompetent. I wanted to pull my hair out or rat them out to their boss.

Fortunately, I didn’t do any of these things, though I was often tempted. And, I’m glad I didn’t. Each of these bad bosses served to make me a better leader. You can learn from positive role models. Sometimes you can learn even more from negative ones.

But what if you are in that situation right now? Here are five ways to cope:

  1. Manage your expectations. When you read a lot of books and blogs about leadership, it is easy to become idealistic. If you are not careful, you can create a set of expectations that no one could possibly meet. You have to remember your boss is human—and fallen at that. He struggles with his own fears, wounds, and weaknesses. He has his own accountabilities and pressure. He will experience good days and bad.
  2. Evaluate the impact. What kind of effect is your boss having on you and your teammates? Is he over-bearing and abusive? Incompetent or careless? Or is he checked out or inaccessible? I have worked in all of these situations and each of them requires a different response. Some are easier to put up with and manage around than others.
  3. Consider your options. If the situation is bad enough, it may warrant your resignation. I have only been in one job where I did this, and frankly—knowing what I know now—I wish I had stayed. But your circumstances may be different. Most situations provide an opportunity to learn, if you are alert and teachable. Some of the best lessons I ever learned were from bad bosses.
  4. Be assertive. Bad bosses have a way of creating a culture of fear, where people are afraid to speak up. But this may be the perfect opportunity for you to become more courageous. This doesn’t mean you have to be disrespectful. Nor does it require that you become inappropriately aggressive. Being assertive means giving voice to your needs and establishing clear boundaries.
  5. Support him publicly. Someone once said, “public support leads to private influence.” I think that is exactly right. When I have been in these situations, I have refused to publicly debate my boss or to gossip about him behind his back. I looked for positive attributes (everyone has them) and publicly affirmed them. I was loyal when he wasn’t present. This gave me credibility when I needed it later.

I once had a boss chew out one of my direct reports in public. I was embarrassed and angry. I did my best to end the conversation civilly and move the agenda along. Immediately, after the meeting, I met with my boss privately and recounted what had transpired. I didn’t raise my voice; I was very matter-of-fact.

I told him that his behavior was unacceptable, unproductive, and would ultimately keep him from getting the results he wanted. I then said, “Look, in order for me to be effective in serving you, I need you to go to Ron and personally apologize. If you don’t, it will undermine your leadership and mine. If you do, it will restore your credibility and win the respect of your team. I’m counting on you to do the right thing.”

This was a very difficult conversation. I knew I was betting my job by being assertive. But he knew in his heart that I was loyal and that what I was asking was reasonable and right. He walked out of his office and did exactly what I asked. Thankfully, this kind of situation never came up again.

Question: How have you handled working for a bad leader? Share your answer on , , or .

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