Five Ways to Manage a Lousy Boss

Before quitting, try asking for feedback, zoning out, or tactfully appealing to a supervisor.

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You'd love your job—if only your boss wasn't such a jerk. But instead of whistling through the workday, you drill holes in your keyboard while stewing over a string of indignities.

Once you've made sure that the problem really is your boss, and not you, there may be little recourse but to quit or ask for another assignment. But before bailing out, here are some coping strategies for a variety of scenarios. First, put yourself in your boss's wingtips: Would such an approach work with you? If you think it might, then give these tactics a try:

1. Your boss is unfairly critical. Approach your boss with a positive spin. Explain that you really want to be a good employee and ask what you should be doing differently. If you're lucky, he'll thank you for taking the initiative and vow to give more praise and less criticism. More likely, however, you'll be told you need to improve, so be prepared for unflattering news. In either case, you'll gain a bit of respect—all but the most insecure boss will appreciate the fact that you solicited feedback and didn't blame him.

2. Your boss is a micromanager. Again, emphasize that you want to solve a problem and improve your performance: "I hope you can help me with something. I've noticed that you monitor my work very closely. Are you worried I can't or won't do the work? Is there anything I can do to give you more confidence in me?"

3. Your boss is a hothead. Anger is a physiological response to stress or annoyance, and some people secrete more adrenaline than others. So:

Recognize that when the boss is yelling, it's his physiology talking. That may help keep your own adrenaline in check and quell the natural instinct to blast back at him.

  • Let him explode; interrupting might just add fuel to the fire.
  • If you walk out, be aware that it will be taken as disrespect.
  • Take deep breaths and try to listen to the substance of what he's saying—just because his tone is wrong doesn't mean his point is.
  • When he's finished, have a measured response ready so you don't react impulsively: "I want to think seriously about what you've said. Can we get together later to discuss it?" Then address the issues once the boss has cooled down.
  • If the tirades are abusive or too frequent, then of course you may have no choice but to report them to a higher-level manager. Or leave.

4. Your boss is ineffectual. He might be in over his head, distracted by family issues, burned out, or lazy. Nonetheless, you need to realize that you won't change your boss. Instead, get help from coworkers or more senior supervisors. Before going over your boss's head, first seek permission in a way that will allow him to save face: "I know you're busy. Would you mind if I asked Supervisor X for a bit of guidance?" Or "Could I speak with Y about that. He's an expert." If your boss says no (a sign that he probably is a poor manager), then you may have to go over his head without permission.

5. Your boss is unethical. Alas, it happens often, whether to line one's pockets, take credit for somebody else's ideas, or simply dodge work. Confronting your boss on this issue, no matter how tactfully, probably won't work, since you'll be challenging his honesty and maybe even threatening his own job. And tattling to someone else will probably invite reprisals. Unless you're willing to take that risk, you have only two real options: Live with the status quo, or leave for more ethical pastures.