Battling Your Boss? The Problem Might Be You

Improve your own skills, and your job might start to look better, too.

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You think your boss is:
a) mean
b) lazy
c) unethical
d) incompetent
e) downright dumb
f) all of the above

Chances are, she thinks the same of you.

Who's right? Sorry to break it to you, but she probably is. Sure, some undeserving people get promoted, but those who rise through the ranks usually are in fact harder-working, more intelligent, and more ethical than those who don't.

So before blaming the boss—or quitting—take a look inward:

  • Honestly, are you as competent, ethical, and likable as your average coworker?
  • Would your peers and previous bosses rate you higher than your current boss does? Not sure? Ask them. And beg for honesty; unless you do, many people will simply spew puffery.
  • Does your boss treat your coworkers as badly as you feel she treats you?

If you answer no to some of these questions, it's not a new boss that you need—it's a quick course in self-improvement. Most weaknesses fall into one of four categories. Try to identify which of the following is the problem; then focus on making yourself a better employee:

Intelligence. This is largely hard-wired—by the time you're an adult, you're unlikely to get any brainier. The key is to accept your limitations—and know when to ask for help. When tasks seem difficult, lean on coworkers or others outside your organization. (Make sure you offer to help back!) Consider starting or joining an online group of peers, like those on Yahoo! They work. When one person faces a thorny problem, E-mailing the group often invites solutions.

Skills. If you need to get better at something, hire a tutor rather than taking a course designed for large groups. Tutoring teaches you precisely what you need to know at the pace you need it, on your terms. How to find a good tutor? If you need to learn how to use a piece of software, call the manufacturer and ask for a recommended tutor. If you manage people or projects poorly, hire a consultant—perhaps a respected member of your professional association—for an hour or two. If you manage time poorly, have the most efficient person you know watch you for awhile and make recommendations.

Drive. Many people develop bad attitudes simply because they're unmotivated. A few solutions:

  • Tweak your job so you're more likely to succeed at it. It's hard to feel driven if you think you'll fail. Find ways to get small wins.
  • Find a collaborator. You might work harder if you feel accountable to somebody else, or simply want to avoid embarrassing yourself.
  • Remind yourself that all work is worthy. Managing invoices in a corporation might seem like faceless drudgery, for instance, but it ensures fairness as customers pay their bills—and might even help that grandpa who invested his life savings to afford his retirement.
  • Ration your energy. Constantly ask yourself, "Need I do this?" "Could I delegate it?" "Is this the most time-effective way to do this task?" Make sure you're prioritizing the most important things.

Personality. You begged your coworkers and friends for honest feedback. Now it's time to act on it. If you're too chatty, force yourself to shut up or use the traffic-light rule: After 20 seconds, your talking light turns yellow; after 20 more, it's red. Are you too wimpy? Think of good ideas and force yourself to bring them up at meetings. Too aggressive, or a know-it-all? Make your suggestions in writing. That gives you time to couch them more carefully or realize the idea wasn't so good after all. Maybe you'll even start to realize when your boss is right.