“I cannot believe that man! He is an idiot. I do not understand why he is still employed here.”

The bad boss; we have all had them. If we are still of working age and not running our own company, we will get them again. Even if we are running our own company we will probably get them as a client.

In a study by the College of Business at Florida State University 700 people working in a variety of jobs were surveyed about how their bosses treat them.

The results were:

  • 39 percent of workers said their supervisor failed to keep promises.
  • 37 percent said their supervisor failed to give credit when due.
  • 31 percent said their supervisor gave them the “silent treatment” in the past year.
  • 27 percent said their supervisor made negative comments about them to other employees or managers.
  • 24 percent said their supervisor invaded their privacy.
  • 23 percent said their supervisor blamed others to cover up mistakes or to minimize embarrassment.


What is a bad boss? I categorise them into five distinct groups.

The Micro-Manager

“Jason, how is that proposal going? Let me see what you have done.”

“But, boss it’s nowhere near ready for you to look at. I will have it in shape for you to look at tomorrow.”

“Let me have a look anyway.”

“Oh, Jason, you have still got a lot of work to do on this proposal. The formatting is all over the shop. Have you run spellchecker?”

“No, I do that at the end.”

“Let me show you a good way of formatting these proposals.”

Ever had a conversation with your boss where the help they offer is at the wrong time and a level of detail that is too low for you to learn anything? You are being micro-managed.

The Faux Big Thinker

The big thinker is generally the opposite of the micro-manager. With little left brain thinking they are great at big picture thinking. They usually are smart enough to know that they are not good at the detail, finding it difficult to concentrate for long times on small scale logic and order. The smart ones, therefore, surround themselves with a team that can think through the detail.

The Faux Big Thinker gets their big thoughts from the dust jacket of books written by real big thinkers. They repeat sound-bites off the dust jacket as thought it was original thought. Popular causes they champion will include “Best Practice”, “Coaching Environment”, “Vision, Mission and Values”, “Customer Centricity” or, of late, “Lean Processes.”

The Faux Big Thinker cannot articulate below the catch phrase what it means for their processes, their customers, their employees and their external stakeholders. They usually do not surround themselves with people who can.

The Populist

The populist wants to be noticed. They want to be popular with their staff or their bosses or both.

They take on work from their bosses that, perhaps, their department cannot cope with. They tolerate staff who are performing poorly or behaving poorly, alienating those who work hard, are reliable and care about the outcomes they achieve. What is most important is that everybody likes them. They appear to be everything to everyone. In doing so, they find it difficult to keep the promises they make.

The Politician

The calculated view about what outcome will progress my career in the short or long term is always taken with every decision.

Bosses of this type can range from amiable to driven. Their membership of the political grouping only becomes apparent when decisions are being made that may have an impact on how they are perceived by people they believe can influence their career.

Decisions which they believe have little influence are made through what is for them and their team, normal business principles. Decisions which they believe will have an impact on their career will be made through the principles of least harm to their current career goal.

Compromise them and you may well get the silent treatment as part of serving time in the doghouse.

The Committee Chairman

Under the guise of empowerment, the Committee Chairman encourages committee based decisions. They form working groups and committees regularly and discourage unilateral decision making even when it is justified, based on skill sets, data availability and financial authority.

They do this in most cases to avoid blame. They generally do not like confrontation and avoid it by sharing the accountability for making decisions. Life under a Committee Chairman boss is slow and the strategy and tactics used to achieve the corporate goal are diffused and often contradictory.

How to get the best out of working for a bad boss

The first step in working out how to survive or even prosper with a bad boss is to work out what is important to you.

If working in the organisation is really important to you because of relationships you have there or the money you earn or the skills you are acquiring or you like the way it looks on your CV then it is wise to try to find a way to work with a bad boss. Think of it as a challenge to your management skills to manage upwards.

If working in the organisation is unimportant to you then you may consider leaving. However, you may well find that you go from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.

If you decide the job is important for whatever reason, then the second thing you must do is to stop whingeing and whining about having a bad boss. A release of frustration with friends and colleagues away from work about the trying idiosyncrasies is justified. Just do not let it engulf your working day.

Having decided that you wish to stay in the job, there are two principles to follow to help you work better with a bad boss.

Principle One – Know Them

All people have good attributes. All people have bad attributes. Get to know your boss and seek out their good attributes. This may mean getting to know them personally. Get to know what they are like at home, with family and friends if they will let you. If they like to keep personal stuff personal, invite them out, ask them questions and open up you own experiences. People will often open up to someone who is open to them.

Getting to know them will tell you something of their thinking style and what motivates them.

Opening up Johari’s Window between you and your bad boss has several benefits.

It is probable that a better rapport between you and your boss will develop. It is not that you will like them all of a sudden, just that you acknowledge how they are different and understand a little about why they are different. You may become less judgemental and begin to understand better how to manage them.

Knowing that the micro-manager is a control freak afraid of letting go at home as well at least lets you know that it is not personal. Knowing that the Committee Chairman is afraid of making mistakes in their personal life will allow you to think about how you can build contingencies into decision options. Alternately, knowing that the Committee Chairman is really someone who wants to be inclusive but lacks confidence in saying “No”, allows you to think about how to develop criteria for decision making through the “Committee” approach rather than the decision.

Trust also grows from rapport. Trust decreases the tendency to micro-manage or manage by committee and allows for more robust communication. More robust communication may allow you to get more detail in the mix with the Faux Big Thinker, or reduce the need to be a Populist.

Principle Two – Help Them

If you can get to know what makes them tick, where it does not compromise your principles, help them.

Start by helping them achieve the end state they want. It may be control or absence of personal risk or being seen to do a good job by their superiors. Even in the latter example, it is quite possible to give the boss credit by talking up the team which they lead.

Once they know you are “on-side” it is likely that further trust will develop.

If you can gain their trust, you will then be able to point out what they are good at and not good at and offer to help them improve. Alternatively, you may for example, help the Faux Big Thinker with the detail of their big idea. Offer to write a quick position paper on their big idea, perhaps including a SWOT analysis and a risk analysis. This presumes, of course, that you understand or can quickly research and assimilate the detail. If you can’t, then offer to find someone who can.

Helping your bad boss to achieve the futures state they are after, in small ways at first, will allow you, in many cases, to manage your boss’s impact on you.

Principle Three – Be Assertive

In getting the best of a bad boss, do not be passive and allow poor behaviour to roll over you. Being passive will ensure you get more of the same behaviour.

Do not be aggressive. Being aggressive with someone in a higher position than yourself, unless you are the master politician, is likely to result in either naked aggressive behaviour or, worse, passive aggressive behaviour.

Of the six basic techniques, the ones most likely to succeed are:

  1. Basic Assertion
    • I haven’t thought about that before, I’d like more time to think about your idea.
  2. Empathetic Assertion
    • I know you are busy at the moment, John, but I’d like to make a request of you.
  3. Discrepancy Assertion
    • “As I understand it, we agreed that project A was top priority. Now you ask me to give more time to project B. I’d like to clarify which is now the priority.”
  4. Negative Feelings Assertion
    • When you leave it this late to ask me to amend the report (objective description of other’s behaviour) ?.it involves my working over the weekend. (specific effects of that behaviour on you).


By being assertive, you will remain focused on what you can control. If you cannot develop an understanding of what makes your bad boss tick and they refuse help, then this is your key defence against becoming bitter about the relationship with your boss.

Principle Four – Know When to Fold Them

If you are feeling bitter about your bad boss and it is clear with the emphasis on clear, that there is no way you can influence who you think is a bad boss, you have lost control of your response and there is no chance of the situation changing, what for you and your goal, is a long time, then go. Look for another role in the organisation or another organisation all together.

When your daily responses are driven by your reaction to a bad boss rather than your own internal goal and controls, you become as much of the problem as your bad boss. It is time to move on.