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January 15, 2013

Overcoming a Roadblock Boss

Do you suspect that you’re working for a problem boss?  For the sake of your own career, be on the lookout for certain types of attitudes and behavior in your immediate supervisor.

Employees often find themselves working for managers whose actions, procedures, and styles may reduce productivity, create resentment, or demotivate subordinates. Look for and certainly cherish the loyal, focused, positive and best in supervisors and leaders but know when you need a change. You must identify the ways your supervisor may hinder your career advancement, and take steps to minimize the effects of this behavior. Steps to minimize bad boss behavior must be taken then career advancers need to create a plan that may involve looking to move inside or outside the organization for the best career health. Even your personal health may take a hit with a toxic boss. So take heed.

Worker Exploitation
An employee of a computer software firm in New England noticed that he was always being assigned to clients located at least three hours of driving time from the office.  Although he recognized that the work was necessary, other employees in the firm with the same seniority were assigned clients who were within one hour of driving time.  For a month, the employee kept a detailed log of the hours he spent driving to visit his clients. He also asked two of his friends in the same division to keep similar logs of their visits.  At the end of the month, he requested a meeting with his supervisor and illustrated the differences in assignments.

In this case, the supervisor honestly had not realized that he was making assignments in such a manner, and he thanked the employee for bringing it to his attention. Good bosses recognize and change when change means the best for the team or for you.

Your supervisor, however, may not be so kind.  If you approach your boss about feeling exploited, have a good paper trail to support your claims. You’re not building a case in all situations but you are checking for patterns because, often, good employees get too close to the situation to notice bad boss behavior and sometimes abuse.  If you choose to speak not confront your boss. choose your words so as to allow the supervisor the option of admitting to an oversight.  Critique his or her actions, not the supervisor’s personality.  “It seems I’ve been assigned a disproportionate share of the overtime work lately; in fact, 20 percent more than any of the other employees in this division. I know how busy we have been so I wondered if you had noticed this?”  That approach will undoubtedly work better than if you said, “You’re sticking me with all the overtime and I’m tired of it.”

Read the Fine Print
A frequent trap that supervisors fall into is offering a manipulative promise to employee the hint or outright declaration that a more favorable future is in store if someone accomplishes a desired goal.  There’s nothing wrong with creating incentives or making promises dependent on behavior or actions, but some managers don’t hold up their end once you’ve done your part. Again, notice the trajectory of their behavior.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of promises that are re-evaluated every time a goal is reached, you might want to write a memo after you’ve received a promise.  It could read, “My understanding of our discussion this morning is that I’ll be given a promotion when my sales increase 20 percent over their current rate.”  This spells out the promise and the action you need to take.  Give the memo to your supervisor  and keep a copy for use as a gentle reminder if needed.  Yes, a hard copy is preferable to an e-mail in most cases because email is a clear paper trail and bad bosses may not like that too much. Tone, too, in email, can be problematic. On the other had if you decide to email, have solid email etiquette and watch your tone. Remember, too many occasions of ‘visionary’ bosses creating a lot of verbal promises with no follow happen a lot in the workplace. Well-meaning and hard working employees will quickly be demotivated if the vision is cast away for new goals with rewards quickly forgotten.

Closely related to the continuing promise is the dangling carrot.  Does your employer ask more of you before you’re due for a raise or a vacation?  This form of coercion can, understandably, create resentment.  We know of a boss in Chicago who used to increase his workers assignments for weeks on end prior to them being due for a raise.

Recognize such behavior, but don’t fall into the trap of giving more than you’ve got.  A good manager will seek to maintain an even keel and a balanced workload for you throughout the year. They adjust. They challenge. They don’t abuse. Resist the opportunity to let the supervisor back you into a corner before annual review time.  Continue your work at a reasonable level.

Playing Favorites
If deferential treatment is the problem, this is one case where you may not be able to work with your supervisor, and may be forced to go above his or her head.  If you’re the individual being treated unfairly, first attempt to point it out to your boss in a constructive manner.  An employee of a small advertising agency felt that she was always given the problem tasks, assigned to finishing projects that senior associates had fouled up.  She openly explained her feelings about it to her boss.  He replied that he considered her extremely useful to the firm.  Her comments, however, made him realize that he hadn’t given her adequate feedback, and he understood her feelings of resentment.

Putting your comments in the light of how the supervisor’s behavior makes you feel will often take the heat off the manger, allowing him or her to focus on the behavior itself rather than taking the complaints personally.

If you notice that one or more fellow employees are being treated unfairly, point this out to your supervisor.  You can bring this up by saying, “I notice that Sam and Ellen seem to feel that you treat them differently from the rest of us.  I know you don’t mean to do this, but I wonder if you’d noticed? Don’t challenge the bosses ego either. Try to find a one on one setting and share instead of tell them what’s going on.

Although there’s a fine line between intrusive and helpful behavior, closing your eyes to the unfair treatment of fellow employees can backfire on you.  You may one day fall out of your supervisor’s favor and end up on the receiving end of the same type of treatment.  It will be better for you, and your organization, if all employees are treated consistently.

Empowered for Failure?
This practice is particularly damaging, not only to employees, but also to the overall company productivity and reputation.  Supervisors “program for failure” when they give assignments that can’t be completed successfully, or when they don’t provide enough guidance or resources to finish the task.

To avoid programming for failure, know your own work schedule.  How much can you accomplish in a given amount of time?  What resources do you need to complete a certain job?

If you’re given an assignment with a built-in time bomb, indicate this immediately.  Don’t wait until a day before the project is due before letting your supervisor know that it was impossible from the start.  Also, once you realize a current project is in trouble, write down all the facts and make as close as estimate as possible of the resources and time necessary to save the project.

An associate of mine who was frequently caught in this trap designed her own weekly progress report with the aid of project management software.  This allowed her to chart the time and resources used for each task, letting her supervisor know the problems in advance as well as providing a good baseline for estimating future projects. It is “often counterintuitive” for highly productive people to ask a boss to slow down a bit but high producers often end up looking for a new job because they are so overloaded by bosses who realize how much they can get done through this person. If you want to stay with the boss and the company you must project manage and set expectations.

Breaking And Word Bending
Does your supervisor sometimes change the meaning of something that was said previously?  Poor supervisors can get in the habit of “bending” what was assigned or said to suit their own current needs.  It’s a good idea to ask for a further explanation of assignment or statements.  Request a repeat of the assignment a day or two after you first received it.  Your supervisor may have altered the assignment in his or her mind without telling you.

The flip side of the inconsistent manager is the one who’s overly rigid when issuing assignments or maintaining work schedules.  In a changing workplace, many employees have needs for flexibility in both the hours that they work and when assignments are due.

If you have a good reason for wanting to change a supervisor’s order, first consider the benefits to you and the company (or client) before asking for such a change. Showing that increased productivity will usually get your supervisor’s admiration for your logical thoughts, rather than resentment for  trying to change orders without a reason. “If you have ever been in a leadership position,” O’Connor adds, “you absolutely know and want others to make you look good. It’s not different for your current boss. To ‘sell’ the benefits of change using how it will make ‘us’ look good and how ‘we’ll’ accomplish the bigger goal will go a long way with most reasonable bosses.”

No Feedback
Unfortunately, it seems that some supervisors have trouble giving feedback on positive developments, and no trouble offering feedback on problems!  A lawyer friend once told me that his firm had not given him a raise in two years because of financial problems.  He was unhappy about not getting the raise, but he was even unhappier about not getting any feedback about his performance.  “I would’ve gladly stayed with the firm if they had given me regular performance reviews and explained how I was contributing to the firm.  I could live without the extra money if I knew how I fit into the company’s future,” he said.

Feedback, both positive and negative, is vital to your performance and fosters an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.  Most supervisors who don’t give feedback aren’t intentionally creating problems.  Some people aren’t in the habit of commenting on performance and don’t understand its importance.

In that case, ask for it!  As you hand your supervisor a report, say, “I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.”  If none are forthcoming, in time ask again.  It may take awhile to “retrain” your employer to give you feedback.

A frustrating trait some managers have is answering questions for feedback with one word, such as fine.  Tactfully convey that you value your supervisor’s experience and would appreciate specific positive or negative comments that could improve your performance.

Giving your supervisor appropriate feedback is another way to condition your supervisor to give you feedback.  How many of us compliment our bosses on work well done?  It’s easy to forget that managers need feedback, too!

Making the Problem Work For You

Your boss might be a terrible taskmaster, a tyrant of the office, insensitive to individual needs, or merely callous.  He or she may be routinely morose, unsupportive, or exploitative. The list of potential management sins goes on and on.  However, most of the people who complain daily about their bosses don’t realize that there are actually some benefits to working for a boss that they don’t respect.  And there are ways to turn a bleak situation to your advantage. “We’ve seen career coaching clients who were feeling and who really were being persecuted by terrible bosses,” O’Connor says. “On many occasions it means that it’s time to look for a new job inside or outside the company. But it is also a time to improve your own leadership style and commit to learning from bad examples. Let a bad boss push you to be the best leader possible.”

Work on Your People Skills.  Working for a boss whom you don’t respect may strengthen your ability to deal with people including good and bad future bosses  and it may help you hone your diplomatic skills as well.  If you can peacefully coexist with people whom you don’t respect, your chances of successfully dealing with all others will improve.  This is an important side benefit for career marketers. In fact, one of the single most important traits for making it to the top is the ability to get along with others.

Assume a More Active Role.  When your supervisor is an incompetent boss who lacks creativity and has trouble making decisions, turn the situation to your advantage by taking on more responsibility.  Do some of your supervisor’s work by thinking up solutions to problems and new programs or products.  Be careful, however.  If you do this, be sure to share your ideas with your boss first instead of taking them to colleagues or to your boss’s boss!

The Big Picture.  Perhaps you’re working for an insensitive boss who, intentionally or otherwise, bawls you out for minor mistakes or takes credit for your achievements while neglecting to praise your efforts.  It might seem like nothing positive can come from this experience, but don’t despair.  You’re learning one of the most valuable of business lessons “don’t take it personally.”  Nothing stops a career dead in its tracks more than the tendency to take every callous remark or each instance of a lack of recognition as a personal affront.  Successful career marketers don’t dwell on these things, they move on. They stay productive minded and don’t take everything personally.

Stay Cool and Calm.  Having a pressure cooker for a boss can be a nightmare and is certainly the cause of many an ulcer.  However, rest assured that you’re not the only one who notices your manager’s volatile behavior.  One strategy, then, in the face of his or her explosions, is striving to be a model of calm level-headedness.  Your ability to stay cool and perform well, contrasted with your boss’s temper tantrums, may eventually win you kudos from colleagues and from top management.

The Advantage of a Bad Example.  You can learn as much from a negative example as from a positive one.  A friend of mine in the publishing business is constantly praised by his subordinates for his management style.  When asked to what he credits these glowing reports, he told me that he kept meticulous mental notes of what his previous boss had done wrong, and he vowed to do the opposite when he was in a position of authority.  So instead of wasting mental energy grousing about the things your boss is doing wrong, contemplate how they could be done right in the future.

If You Have to Move On…

Sometimes a bad boss can make your life so unpleasant and unrewarding that you simply have to escape the situation.  Once you’ve determined that you can simply no longer stay in your present position (beyond the short run), you may find some comfort in knowing that you’re leaving. If, for any reason, you’ve ever debated for months about leaving a position and you now find yourself confronted with a boss for whom you know you can’t work, you’ll probably regard this situation as beneficial.

All your mental anguish can subside because as soon as the right position develops, you’re going and you know it. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. The daily drudgery and personal contact that you have eagerly sought to minimize are now, at least, palatable.  The strains and pressures that may have followed you home can now diminish. There are many signs it’s time to make a move. If you’re attitude at home, at work and with friends and families starts a consistent decline you need to consider making a move. If you decide to go then plan accordingly and don’t just look for a new job, look for the right environment where you can grow. Titles and income matter but your mental, physical, emotionally and spiritual health matter more.

About the Authors:

Jeff Davidson is the internationally recognized expert on work-life balance and holds the registered trademark from the USPTO as the Work-Life Balance Expert. He is the author of several popular books including Breathing Space, Simpler Living, and the 60 Second Organizer.  Jeff has offered his cutting edge, hands-on strategies for a balanced career and a balanced life to audiences from Singapore to San Diego, with clients as diverse as Novo Nordisk, Worthington Steel, Lufthansa, National Office Furniture, the IRS, and Swissotel. You can reach Jeff at or via

John O’Connor, who has been noted for outplacement excellence, professional transition, resume writing and career coaching for nearly 20 years.  As the first private practice Reach Branding Certified Specialist in North Carolina, and the first Certified Federal Job Search Trainer (CFJST), O’Connor set the standard for excellence. John’s has a unique combination of experience and continues to utilize his considerable job market expertise to provide career transitioners with the insight necessary to compete nationally and locally for competitive positions.

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