How to Handle a Bad Boss

We've all worked for tyrants and hypocrites. But before you blow up or break down, consider the alternatives

It happened again. Maybe the boss broke his or her word, bad-mouthed you, or torpedoed your promotion. You're not surprised. Your boss already ignores your ideas, talks down to you, and expects you to be a mind-reader. And that doesn't even count the eavesdropping. What's worse, your boss won't talk about it with you, telling you to "move on." as if nothing ever happened. O.K., you've been saddled with a bad boss.

Having to answer to a boss is a fact of working life. But what are your options when you're undermined by the person whose goodwill you need? Sure, you can lash out or call human resources. Unfortunately, companies are like Vegas casinos: The house always wins. Still, you have options. When the anger starts to boil, consider the following:

Don't Act Immediately

Initially, you'll want to fight back. You may fantasize about writing a blistering critique of your rotten boss…and e-mailing it to the CEO. And those thoughts aren't necessarily harmful. But thoughts don't have to lead to action. Sure, your boss may be small-minded, two-faced, spineless, and technically inept. But would a dramatic gesture be worth the lost salary? Is it worth a hole in your résumé, the one you'll be explaining for years to come? This isn't the economy to choose pride over practicality.

Play the Game

You were cheated or unfairly smeared. Welcome to the real world. But don't let it turn you sour or sloppy. And don't let your boss get to you, either. Nod and smile when he delivers another self-serving sermon. Maintain a can-do attitude, like you have your dream job. Respect and defer, even when trust is lost. You'll work with plenty of jerks over your career. You may as well start practicing now.


Start collecting references and recommendation letters from clients, peers, industry pros, and local leaders. Keep a file of positive citations to your work too. Even more, focus on activities that position you to lead and produce measurable results. No one can take those experiences away from you. And they'll enhance your credibility when the next opportunity arises.

Forge Alliances

Identify the job you eventually want. Get to know the players in that department. Grab lunch with them. Help them out during downtime to prove yourself. Build a relationship with a mentor or your boss's own boss, too. They can provide direction, intelligence, and even a reference. Beyond that, get involved in corporate initiatives, such as community outreach or strategic planning. Your boss has the power and network to blackball you. Stay visible and broaden your circle to counter that.

Don't Jump to Conclusions

Sometimes, there is more going on than meets the eye. The higher-ups may veto your boss's efforts. Conditions change or extenuating circumstances emerge. Your boss probably has a full plate—and you may not be his or her top priority. And your boss may simply be unaware of his or her behavior and its impact on you. Bottom line: Management is often grueling and thankless. We all need someone to blame, but give your boss a little empathy. Don't mistake the person for the perception. They're usually far more complex than your caricature.

Keep Your Boss in the Loop

Everyone likes to feel like an expert and give back. Your boss is no different. Maybe you need to reel yourr boss closer, rather than pushing him or her away. Ask what traits or skills you need to develop to reach the next level. Ask for specifics; look at establishing benchmarks to measure your growth. What's more, become a true partner with your boss. You know your boss's flaws: Train yourself to ask the right questions, clarify, and work through the details. This is perfect training for what's really important in business: anticipation, flexibility, relationship-building, collaboration, and execution (not to mention making your boss look good).

Focus on the Big Picture

Your boss will betray your trust, then tell you to stay positive. Your boss will chastise you for your behavior, then act the same way. Sure, you can quit, but have you gained anything besides an ulcer? Instead, make the most of your time. Focus on gaining the right experience, building your interpersonal skills, and policing your attitude. They are your ticket out. Absorb those daily humiliations, so you never become like your boss. Most important, don't write off the message because of the messenger. Your boss didn't reach this level by accident. Be open to criticisms and suggestions. You'll likely miss some valuable nuggets if you completely tune out your boss.


If your boss really is a jerk, chances are the clock is ticking on him or her. Charm, connections, and reputation only give bosses so much rope. They'll inevitably drop their guard and slip up with someone higher up—and it won't be pretty. In the meantime, view your job as a means to an end and start laying the groundwork to get there. You have bigger things ahead of you.

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