3 Steps to Handling a Bad Boss

Learn how to deal with a difficult boss and how to not take things personally.

If you haven’t had a bad boss yet in your career, consider yourself lucky! If you have one now, though, and you’re feeling the impact every day at work, there are a few pieces of advice I wish I’d received much earlier in my career.

Not every tough boss was dropped on their head as a baby. There are a few out there, but more than likely, they are a well-meaning person put into a bad situation, and that situation is making your life difficult. 

Perhaps they were promoted into management with virtually no training. I have not yet seen a management training program where the managers were actually trained to develop people — they were trained to manage some component of the business. Unless they were invested in by an exceptional boss, they are learning how to inspire people by trial and error. 

So don’t take your boss’ failings personally or see it as a reflection of you. All the same, if you just can’t be successful working for someone, it might be time to let them go learn on someone else. Here are some insights to help you think through how to cope or move on.

Assess the context

While it might be easier to pin all of the problems in your workplace onto one person, a bad boss could simply be a reflection of your own dissatisfaction or a dysfunctional environment. First, take a look at the context for the conflict you’re experiencing.

Do you dislike your job or role? It’s hard to like your boss when they are asking you to do things you really don’t like in the first place. In some cases, the tension you feel might actually come from resentment that you didn’t get a promotion you’d hoped for, or the feeling that your efforts are going unnoticed or at least unappreciated. 

When that’s happening, pay attention to your feelings and find a way to process them to get to the bottom of why you’re feeling that way (therapy can help!). Then make a plan to ask for what you need. In work, as in life, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Why? Because the wheels that aren’t squeaking don’t need any grease! Yes, it would be nice if every growth opportunity fell into our laps or if every boss anticipated our inmost unspoken career aspirations, but that’s just not realistic. 

Take a moment to reflect on what is really dissatisfying you, so you can take steps to address it. When you do, you might just find there’s a prince hiding inside the Godzilla suit.

Are you overwhelmed or feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day? Bosses aren’t clairvoyant, as much as we’d like them to be. So if you realize that you need more support, a day off, or more guidance, find a constructive way to ask for it. You might try saying something like, “I realize I can do a better job if we do X;” or, “We’ll be in a position to get this done on time if we Y.” Those are more collaborative statements than saying, “I’m just not going to get that done, because I’m not getting what I need.”

Then there’s the workplace culture to consider. Is your boss’s apparent inadequacy a result of their own inherent evil, or are they simply a reflection of the environment? There are some situations where it’s hard to be a good boss because of the expectations, pressure, and demands from the organization’s leadership. It’s not right to shove bad management down the ladder, but it is an unfortunate reality in some instances. Recognizing the source of the pain will help give some relief, and it will help you make a decision about what your next step should be. 

Cope or move on

If the stress you are feeling at your workplace isn’t coming from the context or culture, and it centers on the person you report to, the first response is to be patient and thoughtful. Make sure you get organized and explicit about what you need. 

You might need to do some self-evaluation first, to even know what to ask for. Then, requesting a weekly check-in meeting or sending a clarifying email after they ask you to do a project can help make sure expectations are crystal clear. This communication serves the dual purpose of tracking what’s requested of you along with showing what you’ve accomplished. 

You might also take some time to reflect on what will make your boss successful with the leaders they report to. You’d be amazed at how this can change your focus. You may find you don’t have to work as hard, and that it’s a lot easier to please the powers-that-be. In the best of circumstances, you might transform into an ally and discover that Evil Incarnate isn’t quite as evil as you thought!

But if you’ve inherited or found yourself working under Public Enemy Number 1, you have a few options.

#1: Jump ship. Always remember that you’re in a position of power in your own life. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself and your family. Always perform in your current position, of course. But even just starting to look for a new role can give you a sense of relief. 

If you’ve been taught that winners never quit, I suggest putting that advice on the shelf. Successful people quit all the time. They quit when they realize they can’t win, when the resources it will take to succeed exceed the benefit. Be a good quitter. It will serve you well. 

That said, if you’ve found yourself quitting your last three jobs after a few weeks or months, you might need to stare into a reflective surface while listening to Michael Jackson sing, “Man in the Mirror.”

#2: Stay put — for the right reason. If you decide to stay put, do so with a definite goal and timeline in place. Remind yourself of that purpose daily. It might be to get experience you need for your resume. And while you’re grinning and bearing it, don’t forget to offer your boss a little mercy (especially if she or he is new to their role).

If you’re gutting it out, absolutely do not vent to coworkers or complain to your boss about how bad things are. Early in my career, I did both, and not only did it not solve the situation, it reflected poorly on me. Vent to family and friends far away from your workplace to get your head straight. Then make plans to ask calmly and constructively for what you’re missing. It’s more likely that your needs will be heard and addressed that way.

#3: Wait it out. If you’re at a good company with a culture of putting people first, there’s sometimes something to be said for waiting out a bad boss. They tend to be weeded out or get the hint they need to move on. In some cases, this can turn into an opportunity for you to step into a leadership position, especially if you’ve built good relationships with leadership and demonstrated readiness to take on the job. 

In the meantime, know why you’re staying put. And engage in lots of self-care and activities that feed your soul when you’re not at work. Make extra effort to fill your bucket, so you have more left to pour out as you deal with the difficulties during this phase — because after all, it is just a phase. Nothing lasts forever.

The Truth Will Come Out

I have never yet seen a situation in which a bad boss gets away with it over the long term. If they don’t learn how to invest in people, eventually they find themselves part of a downsizing or get demoted. They might leave the organization because they realize they aren’t going to move up from where they are. Or sometimes these are just really unhappy people who are truly suffering in their own lives and are missing out on a whole lotta joy they could have otherwise — joy you can and should claim in your own life. 

Just thank God that you can move on to greener pastures and trust that to everything there is a season. Just let it go. Time will give you new perspective and the best gift of all: you’ll learn how to be a much better boss when your turn comes. 

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