Career advice: Manage a bad boss

Last Updated Jun 7, 2011 3:32 PM EDT

Developing a good relationship with your manager might be the single most important move you can make at your job. At the most basic level, your boss is the key to your next promotion or raise. A good manager will help you excel on the job, and pave the way for your next career step; a bad boss can cause your 9-to-5 to feel like (or actually become) a 9-to-9 — draining your motivation, damaging your emotional well-being and torpedoing your performance.

The trick with a bad boss is to learn how to manage up, wresting back control of your career by creating a more positive work climate. "The key is to understand the motivation behind your boss's behavior — good, bad or indifferent. Once you understand that, you'll have clues as to how to deal with him," says Vivian Scott, author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies.

Here are five of the most common boss types you'll encounter — and a few tricks for managing them.

The Vague One

Ravi Kathuria, president of the Houston consulting firm Cohegic Corp, says that he once worked for a cagey character who never made his desires clear. "He would say that he likes to keep things ambiguous for his management team," say Kathuria. "His belief was, that way, they would develop better solutions." In real life, however, the strategy was a failure: "It created confusion in the management ranks. His team never knew where they stood with him."

To focus a flighty leader, you'll need to pin him down and get details. "If he says 'I just want us to be successful,' ask, 'What would success look like?'" suggests Scott. Ask for as many specifics as possible: how many units you'd need to sell or what profit target you should hit, for instance, or if the deadline you're working on will meet his goals.

Don't be shy about touching base early and often. If your boss is sending you off on a fishing expedition, at least know what you're supposed to catch.

The Micromanager

It can be infuriating to have someone watching your every move. For your own sanity, never forget what motivates micromanagers: "They're concerned about their own reputation and really care about the final product," says Scott.

The best way to manage micromanagers is to get out from under them occasionally: Navigate your way onto cross-functional teams, for instance, so you're dealing with other leaders. Since that's not always possible, Scott also suggests offering your expertise in an area in which your boss is weak, because he won't feel like he knows more than you and, if you're lucky, he'll come to see your expertise as a benefit to him. "Realize you won't get him to stop being a micromanager, but try to redirect his attention," says Scott.

Still getting the feeling there are eyes on you at all times? Ask if he's willing to agree on specific check-in points for a particular project when you will talk about any issues or concerns. This should make him feel more secure that nothing will slip through the cracks — and allow you to slip out of his vise-like management grip.

The Bully

A bullying boss won't steal your lunch, but may steal any vestige of joy you get out of your job — which, in turn, will make it hard for you to perform well enough to get a better offer. One PR specialist from Salt Lake City — we'll call her Gina — says a former boss made feedback personal.

"She treated everyone around her like they were stupid or incompetent. She was extremely negative, rolling her eyes and saying things like 'Oh my God, what a boring idea,'" Gina recalls. "The assistant account person was scared to death of her, frequently avoiding asking any questions because she would just insult her. It made for a terrible work environment."

The first step to beating a bully is doing good work that you can stand behind, and then standing your ground. "The bullying boss is very focused on results and wants things done now," says behavioral analyst Gayle Abbott, CEO of Strategic Alignment Partners in Virginia, who has worked with companies ranging from law firms to Lockheed Martin. "Identify what they want, what they value, and take action. These [types of] people also want you to come to them confident and tell them the truth — even if they don't like it. Don't give made-up answers or platitudes."

One way to handle them: Whenever you're at a turning point, delegate up by giving them a few options; then let them make the choice. "This works because bullies like to make their own decisions. They don't want to be dictated to," says Abbott.

Of course, if you're being personally pummeled, you can always ask if you've done something wrong. A level-headed yet over-stressed boss may not realize how he sounds. And finally, if your manager is just a jerk with a capital J, you may need to start polishing up your resume. Life's too short.

The Narcissist

With some managers, it's all about me, me, me. "They design the processes around themselves. They network for themselves. They change the rules because they want to," says Gonzague Dufour, director of executive recruitment and development at Bacardi-Martini and author of Managing Your Manager: How to Get Ahead with Any Type of Boss. While working for a narcissist can be frustrating, they're actually incredibly easy to figure out and please, says Dufour: "If you're smart, you're presenting everything from his perspective."

Tell her how your new software program will save her time; show how your new sales successes will boost her year-end numbers, or simply ask her how you can help her do her job better. And use your boss's vanity to your advantage: If you make her look good, you'll be more valuable to her — and she'll be more inclined to help you perform.

The BFF

Being buddy-buddy with your boss isn't necessarily a bad thing: The more your manager likes being around you, the more likely he is to keep you on his team as he moves up the corporate ladder. But beware when the friendly small talk turns to personal gossip. Your new best friend may be using you to spy on other members of the staff — and if he's talking trash about your colleagues, you can bet your next paycheck he's also bad-mouthing you behind your back.

The first thing to do is figure out your manager's motivation. "Some people just want to be liked," says Abbott. But if you suspect spying or even back-stabbing, beware.

"If you gossip, [your manager] can use that against you, because [he or she] won't trust you," says Abbott. Whenever the conversation turns to, say, who's flirting with the intern or having problems with their kids, change the topic to something more benign, like last night's episode of Mad Men, and leave the drama on-screen.

Got a bad boss horror story of your own? Share your story in a comment below! Just don't name any names.

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Follow Amy Levin-Epstein on Twitter at @MWontheJob.

  • Amy Levin-Epstein - feature On Twitter»

    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MWOnTheJob.

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