There are 4 categories of bad bosses
I’ve listed them in order of how
personally damaging they are to work for:
2. The Good Menace
4. Irrational Abusive
(I am going to use “he” and “his” in this discussion just because it is easier, not because I believe there are no bad female bosses”!)
1. The Useless Boss
Here is a guy that is either in over his head or just doesn’t care. He can’t make a decision. He doesn’t have a strategy. He can’t fire people who are not performing. He’ll take the credit, but not do the hard work. When the biggest challenges are heating up, he is on the golf course.
Reality: Not Harmful
As bad bosses go, these are the most benign and can present you with great opportunities to step up.
You won’t get paid the big bucks, and you probably won’t even get the credit, but you can use the situation to your advantage to get higher level experience that will have a big payoff when you go to interview for a bigger job later.
Strategy: Step up
Pick the elements of his job for which it will benefit you to get experience, and do them. Don’t speak badly of him to others — this doesn’t benefit you. It doesn’t make you look smart, and you never win against your boss. Just focus on getting high value work done, with or without his help or involvement.
2. The Good Menace
These are generally good, well-meaning bosses who are very committed and engaged, but not in a helpful way. In fact, quite the opposite.
This is the boss who micro-manages, who second guesses you, who goes around you to your people causing frustration and confusion. It’s the boss who says things casually that cause aftershocks of worry and work for you to recover from.
This is the boss who changes his mind all the time, can’t stick to a strategy, is the source of fire drills, chaos, extra work and re-work. This is the boss who keeps you busy with stupid stuff when you could be adding way more value.
Reality: You can’t blame your failure on the fact that your boss is stupid.
You need to find a way to be successful in spite of your boss. This is probably the most common type of bad boss.
Strategy #1. Give them what they ask for.
You either need to “check the boxes” or negotiate it away. Just not doing it because it is stupid doesn’t work. Only after you’ve given him what he needs, or talked him out of it, can you get back to the higher value work.
Strategy #2. Give your boss feedback.
Give your boss feedback that gets you both focused on the outcome and the specific behaviors that are causing issues. Don’t make it a conversation like, “you don’t trust me”, or “you don’t support what I am doing”. Make it a conversation about “when you say or do this specific thing” that results in this specific challenge — the impact of that is a problem for the business.”
(I will write another post soon with more about how to give feedback to your boss.)
3. The Asshole
I distinguish this third category from the fourth category for one reason – they can behave better if they choose to.
The Asshole is a boss who needs to make others feel small and less important. They thrive on it. They consider the “power” of their management role to be a direct reflection of their personal power, and they let you know about it all the time.
You can find them by seeing how they treat assistants, waiters, and sales clerks. If they have constructive feedback to give, they will be mean about it. They are bullies.
This is the boss who makes selfish decisions, is a hypocrite, lies, cheats, and covers his own back at a cost to others.
Reality: They are out there.
You can probably think of a couple. There is not a great filter to prevent them from advancing, and in fact they can be quite masterful at it, by turning their bad behaviors on and off as it suits their goals.
Strategy #1. Minimize Contact.
If you work for an Asshole, the best strategy is to minimize your time under fire. Bullies need someone to bully. Don’t be present. If you are getting yelled at don’t engage, don’t take it personally, leave the room.
Strategy #2. Business Focus.
For example if you are in his office and he attacking you for your poor work, try to say, can you re-state your desired business outcome for this, so I can make sure to tune it the right way. Get the conversation off of You, and onto the Business. If this still doesn’t work go back to strategy #1. Get out of the room.
4. The Irrational Abusive Boss
I have had several people close to me encounter this type of boss. The distinguishing factor here from mere “Asshole”, is that there is a specific psychological disorder at work, and these people are not capable of changing.
This is a boss who rages out of control and way out of proportion, for reasons which have no logical basis. They are genuinely abusive.
The issue here is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (NPD). I used to think that Narcissism was just about people being overly into themselves. The disorder is actually much more specific.
I have included a partial list from the National Institute of Health on NPD:
- Reacts to criticism with rage, shame, or humiliation
- Takes advantage of other people to achieve his or her own goal
- Has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
- Requires constant attention and admiration
- Disregards the feelings of others, lacks empathy
Working with a Narcissist
People with NPD need to be “inflated” (think of a bicycle pump) at all times. As soon as they start to get deflated, they need to be pumped up again. And there are two ways they get pumped up. 1) by people feeding their disorder with attention, praise, and admiration, or 2) by becoming irrationally abusive.
Why they are there
The other part of the reality is that Narcissists can be highly successful. Their NPD pushes them to get their way with little grey area for questions, justifications or doubts. If big success is what they are after, they often get there, albeit leaving many causalities along the way.
So shareholders are not necessarily motivated to take them out, and if enough workers can survive the tyranny, there can be big business outcomes.
Strategy: have a self-preservation plan
If you have a narcissist boss on your hands it is critically important to:
- 1. Learn as much as possible about this disorder
- 2. Recognize that they won’t change
- 3. Not take it personally
- 4. Develop a either survival or exit strategy
To learn more about NPD and how to deal with people who have it:
- The Search for the Real Self, Unmasking the Personality Disorders of our Age, James F. Masterson
- NOTE: Chapters 2, 6, 10,12 are the ones to read for a business person trying to understand a narcissist.
And here are two shorter articles to get started:
- CIO Magazine article: Narcissists at Work: How to Deal with Arrogant Controlling Manipulative Bullies
- A Definition from the National Institute of Health
Photo Credit to Scott Adams: Dilbert Boss