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? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://subbob.posterous.com Bob King

    My experience in government circles (working with Army civilians), is that most of the 5 tips, and especially #4, are useless. If you are dealing with someone that is over-bearing and abusive, the “be assertive” only makes matters worse. This is a great list, however it’s predicated on the boss/supervisor not being a narcissist.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      If the boss is mentally ill, all bets are off.

  • Steve Lyons

    I generally prefer an ebook because of the convenience. I can also underline, copy and save to another document or app such as Evernote.

  • http://richlangton.com/ Rich Langton

    Here’s another take on it Micheal – I find that if I’m having difficulty with someone it’s best for me to do a bit of self examination before I take steps like those you’ve outlined. More often than not I’m the problem! As a pastor, it’s been my experience than many people do the same – they miss the self examination step and jump straight to blaming someone else rather than first asking themselves whether the problem could actually reside with them!

  • Ken Trupke

    #5, Support Him Publicly is so hard, but so important to your own integrity. Great addition the list!

  • Carrie Davis

    I’m currently in a situation involving a different type of “Bad Boss”. She’s a wonderful person, BUT just not a leader. She doesn’t inspire, manage her time or people very well. She’s open to suggestions, etc. She’s also the owner of the buisness and I think, personally she’s still trying to operate like she did when she had 40 employees, we now have at least 150! I recently (3 months) took this position, was going to leave, and we discussed these things. I’m to earn a key spot on her new management team. So staying will benefit (though financially it won’t much further). However, due to her management (or lack thereof) things are just not getting off the ground. Frankly, I’m frustrated, and worse…bored. There are restrictions in place, so it’s not like I can spend my time getting the management team going. She has me doing bottom level secretarial type stuff, with an occassional managerial task. I’ve tried discussing some improvements that I think would help her tremendously, but due to her time management…it never happens. I’m open to suggestions, since once again, I’m quietly looking for a new job.

  • http://www.skipprichard.com/ Skip Prichard

    I love the story of you asking your boss to apologize. Thankfully, it worked out.

    As I look back on my career, more often than not, I am quoting one of the “bad leaders.” That person taught me far more about leadership, and about myself than anyone else could have.

    It’s the same with teachers. The most difficult ones, the ones I struggled with, the ones who I thought were completely unreasonable….years later, those teachers are the ones I owe the most thanks. They pushed me and taught me more than I realized.

  • Lili Coleman

    I once had a bad boss who was fired by the company. It was in a very small town and right away I started receiving phone calls asking what had transpired. When I was asked if she was fired I responded “she had a great opportunity with her family’s business and she couldn’t pass it up.” She later called to thank me and she has been a fan of mine every since. We are all human and make mistakes. She is doing great with the family business.

  • http://www.julieswihart.com/ Julie Swihart

    I agree. Working for a bad boss showed me first-hand what makes someone want to serve or want to shut down. When I was given an opportunity to lead, I understood better how to earn the respect of my team, which gave me the confidence and in-road to be assertive when needed. I think the most fulfilling aspect of leading is earning someone’s respect.

  • http://about.me/revchadbrooks chadbrooks

    I think this has been my favorite post of 2013. I just keep working and luckily I am aware I am being transferred out of my current situation in a few months. That has kept me at bay.

    The one thing I would suggest is learning how to coach your own boss (like you have said before) towards greater effectiveness. This helps tons.

  • ruthschwartz

    Thanks Michael for the provocation. I think that most jerky bosses don’t really want to be jerky bosses. They would prefer to be well liked, respected and admired. They just think that this is the way they are supposed to be. It is a belief. We must be thinking in terms of how to address this belief under the behavior at an organizational level. If the organization has a jerky belief system. (“Only a’holes move up.” etc.) then the answer is be a jerk or get out. If it is an isolated problem, their are many interventions available. http://highperformanceadvocates.com/admired-business-leader-or-arrogant-jerk/

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Great point about beliefs. I think it is a belief system.

      • ruthschwartz

        How about a new belief: Making other people successful and having great teams requires vulnerability. When one is vulnerable and open (and rewarded for that) everyone can step into their genius. The behavior is then to listen, ask questions, create connections and become a better communicator. We see evidence in many organizations (and leadership tomes) that this belief works well. I cry every time I read a string like this. The days of duck and cover must end.

  • robhalo1@yahoo.com

    I don’t put up with any nonsense from my boss. I’ve been cursed at, yelled out and had my personal space invaded as well. I push back immediately. Of course, I used to be a Green Beret so I’m not the normal kind of employee. I always ask them, “How do you like it? Neither do I, so don’t do it to me.” It’s dangerous but it always works. I won’t work for an abusive boss anymore and started my own company.

  • Suzi McAlpine

    Every cloud has a silver lining, even working for a bad boss. Thanks Michael for the practical tips.

  • ferretrene1

    I’d like to add that a lot of leaders are not aware of what happens and how is affecting their followers. I dont know for the rest of you but if something I learned really well from Michael is that Honesty is a great to overcome a lot of obstacles. I’ve had many issues with bad leaders in the past and always worked for me a personal meeting 1 on 1 and if that didn’t work, HR was always my second option. No leader has power over an employee who’s committed to excellence and a job well done. Just a thought

  • http://suwandytjin.com/ Suwandy Tjin

    I used to be in that kind of environment. It seems, to me, that he was making every effort to get rid of me by giving me very hard time. I wasn’t sure why that was the case and up until today, nearly 2 years on, I was still unable to figure out why. I was no longer interested to find out, however. What I knew was that I gave it my best to stay positive, I work hard, I gave my best to help the company get further. I eventually did quit the job after realising that no matter what I did, my boss never appreciated it and resorted to using HR to pressure me.

  • priya

    This book is really a good book which shows us right path. but i read
    one more book named “ONE BOOK OF LIFE SUCCESS” which is truly
    motivational and life changing . .The writer has described in Plain
    English with lot of examples which is easy to understand…For More
    Please watch the video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biORjS8ngv0 [1]

  • http://www.sheepdressedlikewolves.com/ Andy Mort

    Another question: what do you do when someone you love works for a bad leader?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      You might share this post and then have a discussion about it. Thanks.

  • FantasyBaby

    I just do my only things.And ignorancing his action.But if he break my self-respect I must fight back

  • jg

    Hi I have a question. My boss was
    everything mentioned above. I worked for him for 5 yrs., 2 of which were
    extremely abusive as his unemployable 40 yr. old son had to come work for us.
    They also had a very volatile relationship. This combined with his paranoia
    and Girlfriend problems, made me the verbal punching bag. He would even
    curse and throw things in his office.

    Within the last 2 years it was so bad that
    I didn’t know what each day would bring. Whether he would be nice or evil.
    I catered to his every work need, including trying to keep him calm and
    steady and constantly supporting him. However when the texts started and
    phone calls into my personal time about taking care of things for the business
    or for his life became even more abusive, with cursing and anger, I did talk to
    him about it and told him that it was not professional for him to be acting
    that way and that I would not have him being disrespectful toward me. His
    son saw how he was treating me, and decided to try yelling at me as well.
    I was able to put a stop to that. A totally dysfunctional place to
    work.

    So one day when I had enough, of his
    anger, passive aggressive behavior, mean and degrading I quit. However, I
    didn’t do it nicely at all, I’m afraid, I yelled right back to him (for the
    first time) and told him that I quit, that I had had enough of his abuse and
    that I wasn’t capable of taking it any long. I couldn’t sleep, I was
    always jumping when he came into or even passed by my office. I was
    physically sick when he started yelling, swearing and throwing things in his
    office.

    Let me also tell you that this was a
    fairly small company when I started. With my role in the office and guidance
    and support the company grew over 80% in 4.5 yrs.

    So now the dilemma: I’m feeling guilty
    that I left that way and lost my cool. He had texted me when I left and
    demanded and cursed that I return. I said no and do not call me. I
    even left some of my personal things behind.

    I want to write him and apologize so that
    he doesn’t black list me. And I do feel badly of the way I left. How do I
    do that without having to bring up his behavior that lead to me saving my
    sanity and quitting?

    I’ll need him for a reference but I’m sure
    he will not be helpful that way unless he feels that he’s has won.

    Any help regarding an apology letter would
    be helpful.

  • http://lucychenfineart.com/ Lucy Chen

    I went to find a new job…