What to Do About a Boss From Hell

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Most of us will run into a boss who criticizes relentlessly, uses fear tactics or seemingly throws up unnecessary roadblocks that make it harder to do our job.

But unless you see no end in sight or your supervisor is ruining your health or your career prospects, a bad boss may not be a reason to quit. Instead, consider your difficult boss a personal tutor designed to teach lessons a great boss never will.

Looking through this enlightened lens, here are some of the skills you can glean from a difficult boss:

1. Developing a Positive Attitude. Careers consist of getting through ups and downs – including the occasional bad boss. “This, too, shall pass” should be your mantra during this challenging phase. You have a job to do. Jobs come and go – so will this boss. In one of my early jobs, I had a never-smiling, never-complimenting, ever-unpleasant boss – sullen, negative and critical at every moment. Rather than let his attitude infect mine, I made it my goal to surprise and delight him to the point that he would simply crack a smile. He never did. But after three months of coming in early, sweeping up at the end of the day, surprising him with beyond-the-call output, he did write me a glowing letter of recommendation.

2. Demanding High Standards. Another bad boss I worked with as a peer was great at frightening people into over-preparation. After seeing him threaten subordinates with their jobs if he didn’t get what he wanted, I still use his example to remind myself to avoid fear or intimidation as motivators. That said, I also remember his intensity. Although I chose not to adopt his punishing techniques, he raised my standards by his demands, and I learned to set high expectations. It was my job to translate his expectations to others, and I learned to bring out the best in them by tapping into their desires not to disappoint.

3. Learning How to Motivate. I recall another boss who thought it was his job to point out every flaw, to put everyone on his or her heels, and to strike fear in the team. I could not have had a better tutorial on how not to motivate, inspire or help others achieve their potential once I became a manager myself.

We learn from mistakes, bad experiences and failures. It’s better to learn from the missteps of others (including a bad boss’s management style) than from having to make every mistake ourselves. So if you have a difficult boss, study him. Figure out what makes him problematic. Resolve to do things differently if you ever get the chance. But don’t miss the opportunity to see if you’re reading things correctly. In other words, you may be the problem. Perhaps you’re not getting it – not doing things to learn, grow and produce great work.

One notoriously tough boss, George Patton, said: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Rather than surviving a difficult boss, you may be simply disappointing your “Patton,” criticizing him when you could have been learning a lesson about relying on your own ingenuity.

Also keep in mind that even if you don’t like your boss or don’t think she’s easy to work with, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not a great boss. In David Remnick’s book “Lenin’s Tomb,” a summary of the fall of the Soviet Union, he noted that bad systems make people behave badly. “The system made beasts of them,” Remnick writes. Maybe your “bad boss” is a function of a really lousy system that keeps both of you from thriving. All the more reason to view your situation as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Ultimately, there is no better teacher than adversity, and a really bad boss can excel at providing it. Studying hard under such a tutor will prepare you for future opportunities. At the very least, it will help increase the odds that you won’t become a terrible boss yourself.

By Joel Peterson