There are so many ways in which a supervisor can be ineffective:

  • The boss who gives employees little direction, few expectations and no timeline, then erupts into a rage when work doesn’t meet a very specific set of specifications (often totally different from what was first discussed), yesterday
  • The boss who micromanages projects, squashing creativity
  • The boss who plays favorites among staff (worse yet, by being fake nice), creating unnecessary tension and an unproductive work environment that feels more like high school, and less like a professional place of employ
  • The boss who micromanages non-work time, like lunch breaks, fostering more high schoolesque, hall pass style mistrust
  • The boss who can’t be bothered with staff input because they’re ever so busy–with what, no one knows
  • The boss who can’t be bothered with staff input because only their opinion is relevant

Any of these sound familiar? I could go on (worldwide, there’s a rich fiction culture of horrible bosses), but I think all of these bad behaviors can be explained with one issue: ineffective supervisors have a hard time dealing with power.

Whether you’re a first-time manager right now, in your current position, or if you’ve been doing it for years, there is a certain fear of failure that accompanies being in charge, and it can make folks act erratically. With great power comes great responsibility, and if you’re not used to owning your work, how are you supposed to own the work of a group? So many of these bad behaviors are bosses trying to avoid potential blame.

  • Evasive on the details up front but obsessively interested in the end? A bad product is the result of employee incompetence, because they should know what they’re doing.
  • Micromanagers? A bad product is the result of staff negligence, because the boss was there for them every step of the way.
  • The boss who plays favorites? A bad product is the result of internal employee bickering, because the boss was rewarding good work all along.
  • Can’t be bothered? Much like evasive on the details boss, a bad product is all on the staff, because they should be able to perform their jobs.

So, how can you as an employee (or you, as a boss) deal with this special kind of fear of failure? While I don’t recommend staging an intervention or an airing of grievances, I do think it’s worth saying, “I understand that overseeing this project can be difficult, but I want to do the best work possible for the organization.” Now, “let’s make a specific plan,” or “let’s step back from ourselves for a moment and focus on our mission,” or “we need to focus on our mission so we don’t lose funding,” or something to that effect. As much as a workplace runs on people power, it’s not about people. Like it or not, a great staff with great working relationships is a means to an end.

To deal with your bad boss, try to extract yourself from the emotional situation and focus on the task at hand. You may find that folks can get on better when they’re all about the work. If that doesn’t work, you may find that not taking a workplace situation personally is better for you, in your non-working hours. After all, whose life is it anyway?

You may not be able to make your bad boss own themselves, but you can certainly own you. Take the empowerment situation into your own hands, because your bad boss may be the boss of your work, but they’re certainly not the boss of you.

[Thanks to all those who contributed bad boss archetypes!]