by Jim Bruce
[Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.]
It is wonderful to have a good boss, one who is understanding, supportive, provides challenging assignments, shows an interest in you and your work, etc. You get the picture. I have had two such excellent bosses in my career. They were great and were real partners with me in getting the work done. However, that is not always the case.
Most of us will encounter a difficult boss or two or perhaps more in our careers. I had two in my some 40 years at MIT. One never seemed to follow through on his important commitments and the other always had the “right” approach or answer which too often wasn’t. Also, on my list are two additional individuals who often fell asleep during one-on-ones. One of these fell asleep while I was interviewing him as a candidate to be my boss. (When I told the individual, who would become this person’s boss about the candidate’s falling asleep, he responded that he had that problem too. I already knew that as he had fallen asleep in previous meetings with me.)
There are a number of lists in the literature (see here, here, and here) of traits that bad bosses exhibit. These include:
In spite of this list’s length, it is not exhaustive. I’m sure that you have other examples to add from your own experience.
I see two big take-aways here: First, it is very likely that there is no way you can escape working, at one or more points in your career, for a difficult manager who exhibits some of these characteristics. And second, when this happens, you need to feel compelled to ask yourself “what do I do” and get an answer to your question, and not just ignore what’s happening or run for the door.
Though we are very likely to think of our bosses as being good or bad, Mary Abbajay1, president and co-founder of Careerstone Group, LLC, a woman-owned, full service organizational and leadership development consultancy, suggests that it is not helpful to think of bosses and managers in that way. Rather, as career coach Sarah DiGuilio2 suggests, you should think about your manager in terms of three qualities – is he or she organized, does he or she help get things back on track, and does he or she deliver on the goals of the organization.
DiGuilio also notes that an effective manager supports the people they are managing, values these people, listens to them, coaches them, and cares about their engagement and their well-being. She also notes that managers listen, are honest, trustworthy, and hold those who work with them accountable and provide support where needed.
So, what do you do when your manager is not effective? There are three general answers to this question: You can complain to your manager’s manager, you can find another position at your present (or another) employer, or you can work to make your current situation better. In the remainder of this essay our focus will be on the latter, making your current situation better.
What specific things can you do to be more effective working for your difficult boss. Here is a list of six things that you may find helpful:
Working for a difficult boss is a challenge. It can be nerve-wracking, it may make you want to scream and cry. It can also be a time when you really grow. And, it may be a time when you decide you have to go and there is no shame in that.
If you are now working for a difficult boss, I trust that you will find this essay helpful. I wish you every success as you continue your journey, whether you stay or move to your next opportunity.
Do all you can to make it a good week for you, your team, and your manager.
. . . . jim