How to Tame a Bad Boss: 8 Practical Techniques

Employees don't have to suffer under the tyranny of a bad boss. Management experts say employees possess the power to soften a bad boss's sharp edges. Here are eight tactics for making a bad boss more bearable.

Wed, December 07, 2011

CIO — If you're one of the many unfortunate souls who reports to a bad boss, you may think your only options are to find a new job or continue to take crap from your corporate Caligula.

In fact, employees don't have to suffer the many indignities that bad bosses create, whether verbal abuse, micromanagement or having to cover up the bumbling boss's mistakes, to name just a few. Management experts say employees have a lot more power to tame a bad boss than they realize.

Attempting to soften a bad boss's sharp edges is a smart career move, says Bob Hewes, a senior partner with leadership development firm Camden Consulting Group. Because we spend so many of our waking hours at work and because our rapport with our boss is one our most pivotal relationships outside of family, it's in our best interest to try to make it work.

"Having that [relationship] work better makes everyone more successful," says Hewes. What's more, he adds, "knowing how to work with difficult people makes you a better employee and manager."

Through positive reinforcement, formal HR feedback mechanisms and direct conversations with the boss, employees can reform and refine a bad one. Here are eight tips for making a bad boss more bearable.

1. Stop reinforcing the boss's bad behavior. Management consultant Aubrey Daniels says employees often inadvertently reinforce a bad boss's behavior. For example, if the boss is fond of making "off-color" jokes, employees reinforce that behavior when they laugh at his jokes, says Daniels.

Sometimes bosses make inappropriate comments to get a rise out of employees, so if the boss says something that offends you, demonstrating that the boss got to you will encourage his behavior, adds Daniels.

The best thing to do is to ignore the comments that disgust you. "Ignoring takes away a reinforcement, and by doing so it diminishes that behavior," says Daniels.

2. Encourage positive behavior. Ignoring your boss's bad behavior is one step in getting him to clean up his act. Equally important is recognizing a positive behavior that replaced a negative one.

"If you just ignore the bad behavior, it may go away, but the likelihood that another bad behavior takes its place is high because there are more wrong ways to do things than right ways," says Daniels, who is also the author of Bringing Out the Best in People. "You need to forgive and forget the things the boss did if they now do something that's more in line with what you like. You need to let the boss know. His improvement needs to be recognized in some way. That's the key to change."

3. Show your boss some empathy. If you get little recognition from your boss, imagine how much less appreciation (and even more grief) he may be getting from his manager. He may unfortunately be replicating the counterproductive management style with you that his boss employs with him.

Or maybe his nutso management style stems from a crumbling marriage, financial problems or troubled kids? He may be bringing personal stresses into the workplace, says Jim Finkelstein, CEO of organizational development consultancy FutureSense and author of Fuse: Making Sense of the New Cogenerational Workplace.

"When we do interventions, we seek to understand why the individual is behaving a certain way," he says. "A little bit of empathy can redirect bad behavior into cooperation."

Finkelstein advises employees to delicately but directly approach the boss to find out why he's on the war path. An employee might say to the boss: 'You seem really stressed out. Is there something that's bothering you that I can help you with?'

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