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?’
The boss might just respond, says Finkelstein, “I’m glad you asked. Just bear with me. I’m going through a difficult time.”
If the employee is feeling particularly courageous, he might address one of the boss’s recent tirades by asking, “Is there a reason you went off on all of us? Can I suggest a different way to handle that situation in the future?”
4. Seek out people who get along with your boss. Chances are, at least one person in your organization finds your boss agreeable. This individual may be a peer on your team or one of your boss’s management-level colleagues. Finkelstein recommends identifying this person to find out what you’re missing.
“Go to someone who’s a peer of your boss,” he says. “Tell them, ‘I see you get along with Jane. I’m really struggling with her. Can I enlist some mentoring from you on how to approach her?”
Camden Consulting’s Hewes advises employees to ask someone they trust to observe how they interact with their boss and give them feedback on their interaction. “You’re trying to get some impartial ideas from someone who is not attached to your emotions,” he says. “If you can get a few ideas of things you can adjust, that would help the relationship go better.”
5. Address stylistic differences. Obtaining feedback on your interactions with your boss from a trusted colleague may help you pinpoint stylistic differences that could be the cause of your conflict. For example, if your boss is results-driven while you’re process-oriented, conflicts are bound to ensue.
Hewes says to identify your boss’s management M.O. and focus on giving her what she wants. If she wants results, give her results. Don’t dwell on how you achieved them. The best way to know what your boss wants is to ask her directly for feedback on how she prefers information and ideas be presented to her.
6. Find one thing—anything—you can appreciate about your boss. Your boss might be a swine, but she might also possess a keen ability to foresee risks and challenges. Finding some quality you genuinely appreciate in your boss “helps you stay in the game longer,” says Hewes, even if you’re simply biding your time until you land a better job.
Complimenting your boss on this quality you appreciate might help to soften her exoskeleton. Just make sure the compliment is sincere, as tough bosses aren’t usually receptive to flattery, according to Hewes.
Showing your boss some appreciation may be a welcome change for her, especially if she experiences little appreciation from her boss or at home. It also reinforces positive behavior.
7. Enlist help from your peers. If your coworkers feel the same way as you about your boss, you can work collectively to change his behavior, says Daniels, the psychologist. Before a meeting in which the boss might debut a new tasteless joke, you and your coworkers might agree not to acknowledge his jocularity. If no one responds to his antics, his behavior is likely to change a lot quicker than if just one person is unresponsive, notes Daniels. “It’s amazing how quickly this [tactic] works,” he says.
8. Take advantage of formal HR feedback mechanisms. Many organizations routinely conduct employee engagement surveys and 360 reviews of managers, says Finkelstein. If you work in such an organization, he says, “you have the perfect opportunity to express yourself. If an organization has been proactive enough to seek input, give it. That’s your power.”
Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at email@example.com.