Stacey loved her job at a top tech company — that is, until her boss left for another firm. The new manager, Peter, seemed to dislike pretty much everyone on the team he had inherited; he was aloof, prone to micromanaging and apt to write off any project that wasn't his brainchild. Within a year he had replaced a number of Stacey's colleagues.
At first, Stacey (whose name has been changed to protect her confidentiality) tried to win her new boss's trust by asking for his feedback and guidance. But Peter was unresponsive. When, several months in, she finally decided to approach human resources about the problem, she got nothing more than sympathy. The firm wasn't willing to sanction Peter, because his unit's performance hadn't materially deteriorated and no one else had lodged a complaint.
Unable to change the dynamic with Peter, Stacey felt depressed and increasingly unable to do good work.
Stacey's situation isn't uncommon. According to the most recent Gallup "State of the Global Workplace" study, half of all employees in the United States have quit jobs at some point in their careers in order to get away from their bosses.
What are the "bad" bosses doing? Frequently cited grievances include micromanaging, bullying, ducking decisions, failing to listen and not developing staff. Such dysfunctional behaviour would make anyone unhappy and unproductive, but managing your relationship with the boss is a critical part of your job. Doing it well is a key indicator of how effective you are.
The first step in improving a bad situation is to consider the external pressures your manager is under. Most bad bosses are good people with weaknesses that can be exacerbated by the pressure to lead and deliver results. So it's important to consider why they're acting that way.
Research has shown that practising empathy can be a game-changer in difficult boss-subordinate relationships, and not just as a top-down phenomenon: If you work on empathizing with your boss, chances are he will start empathizing with you, which will benefit everyone.
The second step is to look at yourself. In my experience, people who struggle to work well with their bosses are nearly always part of the problem themselves: Their behaviour is preventing them from being recognized and valued. Consider objectively any criticisms your boss has offered. In what areas do you need to improve?
Also, ask yourself what might make your personalities clash. Next, observe and seek advice from colleagues who work successfully with your boss. Try to understand his preferences and hot buttons, and get pointers on how you might do things differently; take advantage of group training programs to get advice from peers.
The next step is to try talking to your boss about the problem. Position yourself as seeking advice, request a one-on-one meeting and give your boss an idea of what you'd like to discuss. If you're lucky, he will appreciate your willingness to engage and will point out areas to improve, building the foundation for a closer relationship. If your boss stonewalls or rebuffs you, however, that's a clue that the problem isn't you, and you need to figure out what you can do to alter things.
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If you conclude you're not the one derailing the relationship with your boss, only then should you openly suggest that the two of you don't seem to interact well and that you'd like to remedy the situation.
There are a number of ways into this conversation. If you have the opportunity, you can tack it on as an extension of a frank discussion you're already having. If a moment like this doesn't present itself, you have to initiate the conversation yourself. Experts recommend doing that in a private setting where you can't be interrupted and where it will be difficult for either of you to leave.
If you can't improve things by changing your behaviour or opening lines of communication with your boss, and if your colleagues feel the same way you do, you should consider alerting HR and the boss's bosses to the problem.
In taking this route, however, you need to make a substantial business case for why your boss is a liability and be prepared to make a credible threat of litigation against the corporation. You'll need documented evidence of the boss's negative impact and inappropriate behaviour, such as witness statements and examples of correspondence that breach company rules.
In the absence of compelling data indicating a pattern of bad behaviour, HR representatives are unlikely to be allies; very often they will take the boss's side. Mutiny and whistleblowing can also damage your future job prospects. Lodging a formal complaint, therefore, is definitely a last resort.
If you can't change your relationship with your boss by taking the steps described, your options become more limited.
In these situations, most employees simply go through the motions at work and minimize contact with the boss. There is always the possibility, or hope, that he will move on. But remember that in playing for time, you also need to set a limit, so that hanging in doesn't become a way of life.
The better solution is to look for another job while you're still employed, exiting on your own terms. Having a bad boss isn't your fault, but staying with one is.
That's ultimately what Stacey concluded. After some soul-searching, she started to hunt for another job. It didn't take her long to find an interesting position in another organization working under a boss with whom she had great rapport. Some months later a former colleague told Stacey that Peter had left the company soon after her. Although his departure was announced as his own choice, the inside scoop was that top management had forced him out because he was losing too many valuable people.
Written by: Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries
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