A recent study found that the competence of your boss has a significant impact on how much you enjoy your work. Social media-based recruitment agency Staffbay.com, meanwhile, found in a December 2013 survey that an astonishing 87.2 per cent of the respondents said they wanted to leave their current role within a year, with 52.6 per cent indicating it’s because they didn’t trust their boss.
In other words: bad bosses categorically take the fun out of work and there are a lot of truly terrible ones around.
This will, of course, come as news to no one. If you’re lucky enough to have a boss you admire and respect, you’ll probably have suffered through a bad boss earlier in your career – or at least know someone who has. Bad bosses can seriously mess up your life.
‘Most people simply never learned to be a boss, it just happened to them,’ says Maurits Kalff, a psychologist, coach and leadership expert at the School Of Life, a global self-improvement organisation headquartered in London. ‘If they did go to school to study what it takes to be a good boss, most of what they learned is theoretical. The real challenge, of course, is the practical, particularly those moments when they don’t know what to do or say and feel scared.’
Being a boss, he says, amplifies our weaknesses as well as our strengths.
But before we start to feel a shred of sympathy for these tyrants, it’s worth remembering the default setting for many bosses is to play at being ‘in charge’. They worry that to ask for input or to embrace other people’s ideas equates to weakness.
So they fiercely guard their hand. They hoard information, they use divisive tactics to split teams and get people on their side, and if they want to make your life miserable or stomp all over your chances of getting a promotion, what’s stopping them? Whether you like it or not, your status and prospects at work are only as good as your boss – or as good as your boss will allow them to be.
Or are they? While it certainly feels like a boss who has it in for you can permanently derail your chances of career success, some experts argue there are ways to circumvent the problem.
Stella Mandehou, for example, the UAE-based head of corporate partnerships and career development (Mena) at global business school Insead, says that modern 360-degree performance reviews offer a golden chance to alert HR to a problem boss and ask them to see what the rest of the office – everyone from the receptionist up – really thinks of them.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the boss will be replaced overnight, of course, but it’s a way to fight back. Stella also argues that your working mindset should expand beyond your immediate surroundings; that you should take something of a holistic approach to the entire organisation.
‘Whenever I start a new job, I try to create a positive buzz around my name,’ she says. How does she do that? ‘Becoming an internal networker lets the whole company see the real you and is a great way to mitigate against a problematic immediate superior.’
Another way to take something useful from a ‘bad boss’ situation, says Maurits at the School Of Life, is to learn from it. ‘Bad role models are also role models,’ he says. ‘You can ask yourself, “What would I do differently if I were the boss and why?” Manage your own professional development and keep your learning curve steep.’
To know the enemy, then, it is perhaps wise to try to understand them. Try to learn what makes the boss tick, what makes them mad, what they stress over every night and what kind of behaviour makes them happy.
‘I believe you can actually be better than your boss,’ says Stella. ‘We work in team environments, and it’s not really like any one person can take all the credit. People can suggest new ideas, correct things that don’t work well and implement new solutions.’
To help steer you on your way, Stella offers the following advice…
The bad-tempered boss
‘I wouldn’t say this is a common trait,’ says Stella, ‘but if I could identify one thing about bosses in the UAE I’d say that a bad temper is something you perhaps get to see more often here.’
Maybe it’s the melting pot of cultures, or the pressure, but moody bosses are making many an employee’s life a misery.
Try this: ‘See if you can find out what it is that makes them lose their temper,’ says Stella. ‘Is it due to something you have done? Is it something in their personal life? Are they under a lot of stress at work? If you can identify the problem and it isn’t related to your performance, then try not to take it personally.’
When the boss goes through a mood swing, Stella advises staying out of their way for a while – and then choosing your moment to talk to them about the effect it is having on you. ‘Communication can usually help,’ she says. ‘But if it’s gone from difficult to outright harassment, speak to HR.’
Interestingly, a recent study in the US found that employees with hostile bosses seemed to feel better when they returned the hostility. Best done in a passive-aggressive manner (things like putting in a lacklustre performance and pretending not to hear what your boss has said), the theory is that it helps give employees a mischievous way to feel like they’re throwing a punch back. But in reality this would go against the staff member who would be seen as a person who is not proactive or a team player.
The absent boss who is always networking
‘Well, that’s me!’ admits Stella. ‘There are ways of presenting this as a negative, but it can also be a positive when you look at it as a new way of working.’ The problem with absent bosses, of course, is that they can sometimes fail to give clear direction to the team, thus leading to demotivation.
Try this: Stella says you should try to keep open lines of communication with your boss, encouraging them to try different ways to keep in touch. ‘I’m constantly on the road or travelling,’ she says, ‘and when I hired a new assistant a few months ago we started using WhatsApp, began talking in a more informal way, and I was available on Skype all the time. A real challenge for people who are regularly away is engaging with the people they work with – and also making the team believe that they are actually working. But it’s not that difficult if you have the lines of communication open.’
Stella recommends agreeing on a daily 10-20 minute chat with your absentee boss.
The boss who thinks you’re never good enough
The only comment about your brilliant report was that it was late. The four hours you stayed after work last night should have been five. But Stella wonders if the ‘always-wants-more kind of boss’ really is a monster...
Try this: ‘You have to figure out why they’re acting this way,’ says Stella. ‘What you may perceive as discouragement may be a boss wanting you to excel to the next level.’
If not, and your boss really is just a tyrant, a mentor within the company might be a good solution for those times of self-doubt.
‘I once had a boss who was very difficult to please and I started to doubt my abilities,’ Stella explains. ‘What worked well for me was to create a strong bond with a mentor within the company who helped me through difficult times and who could tell me whether something really was my own fault or when I was in the right.’
Stella also advises keeping track of your accomplishments in case your boss gives you a bad performance review or, worse, tries to get rid of you. ‘If you get compliments from clients and co-workers, keep a record of these because they could prove very helpful,’ she says. ‘Also, though, try to acknowledge your boss’s accomplishments from time to time. If he or she is insecure or needing recognition, that might work, too.’
The weak boss who never stands up for you
‘In this case everything happens because of fear, I think,’ says Stella. ‘Fear is the main motivator for many weaknesses.’ If your boss wouldn’t say boo to a (more senior) goose, he or she is probably terrified of rocking the boat.
Try this: ‘Take a bit more initiative, present your facts very clearly and try to help the boss make a decision,’ says Stella. ‘Provide them with examples, with certainty and reliability, and suggest ideas that are well documented so the boss feels secure before making a decision.’ And if even that doesn’t help, remember if you really are a fine worker, you won’t have a weak boss for long. Your good work will be spotted and will propel you to higher positions.
The boss who takes credit for all your work
Arguably the most frustrating kind of boss there is. You spent six weeks on a project, but they failed to let you in on the presentation to the board and you just saw your boss’ superior pat him on the back. Sometimes, however, this is simply a fact of work life. It was your boss’s decision to put you on the project – wasn’t he just using his resources effectively?
Try this: ‘It pays to understand their motivation,’ says Stella. ‘Perhaps they fear losing their job?’ Even so, she advises that careful documentation of your involvement could be your best form of defence. ‘Make it tough for them to lie or take credit,’ she says. ‘When sending an email about a project, copy in all of the people involved so that everyone knows your involvement. It’s another good reason to build relationships within the company and make sure that senior employees other than your boss know what you do.’
If all else fails, of course, you can always look for the door – thought it’s preferable to do so when something better comes along rather than when you’ve simply had enough.
‘A positive motivation to move on is always better than a negative one, and it looks better on your CV,’ says Maurits. ‘The best moment to leave is when it fits in with your development plan.’
‘I’m a big fan of trying to fix problems rather than just walk away from them,’ adds Stella. ‘But of course, a lot depends on how much patience you have, how much loyalty you have to the business and your own limits. If it all becomes too stressful and starts to affect your health, well, the deal’s off for me.’
Finally, Stella has one last tip – and this time it’s for the bosses: ‘If you’ve been in business for 10 years and a newcomer comes along with new ideas, keep your mind open. If you discourage or kill creativity and your first reaction to everything is no, you’ll never see new solutions.’