Working with a Nightmare Boss

How to manage this tough situation

To state the obvious, it’s incredibly difficult to work with a nightmare boss. Yet these personality types exist in many corporations, and the decision is often deal with it, or find a new job.

Career experts share their advice on how to handle this all-too-common situation and keep your job at the same time.

Working with a Nightmare Boss

Change your perspective

“If you hope that your horrible boss is going to suddenly change his or her attitude and start treating everyone fairly and appropriately, you'll be constantly disappointed and frustrated. Instead, it's your own attitude that needs to change. Only when you look at your boss and your circumstances differently can you get past all the negativity and on to advancing your career,” said Dr. Noelle Nelson, author of Got a Bad Boss? Work that Boss to Get What You Want at Work.

Here's what Nelson suggested:

  • Drop the “poor me” attitude and step up to the plate. Be there for your co-workers, help and support all of them, including the boss's “favorites.”
  • Look for solutions rather than whining about problems.
  • Believe in yourself, in your abilities, in your skills and talents no matter what your bad boss says. Have faith that you can do what the job requires.
  • Take the initiative. When you see an opportunity to act or contribute, do so. Offer ideas and suggestions for how to do things better.
  • Always do your work well. Apply yourself to the task at hand and get it done properly.
  • Do a good job because it's satisfying to you. You won't get an acknowledgement of good work from your bad boss so it has to come from within.

“Use this new attitude to get what you want from your bad boss. One of a bad boss's greatest fears is that people will find out that they are terrible at what they do. Make him look competent. Your problem-solving attitude will bail him out of mess after mess. He'll take all the credit for your good work, which is frustrating, but he'll also lean on you more because you've become valuable to him. You can ask for-and get-resources, bonuses and the support your co-workers only dream of. Not only that, but you'll be building on your experiences and successes for the time when your boss eventually leaves or there is an opportunity to move to a better position within the company or another job opens up elsewhere,” Nelson said.

Working with a Nightmare Boss

Options for recourse

Sometimes bad bosses are simply bad people, while others may be decent but incompetent in managing under stress, said Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide.

“Regardless, when your boss is a bully, your recourse is often limited. Like any abusive relationship, there is an opportunity cost for pulling the trigger: fear of being fired, retaliation, or reputational fallout. Even when the HR department is consulted, the victim may unfortunately bear far too much of the burden when this process involves a highly placed executive or manager who is a big contributor to the bottom line. These are the clients I see in my practice and they tend to be either paralyzed with fear or desperate to exit the situation,” Cohen said.

When determining recourse, Cohen advised looking at these options:

If your company has an employee manual, determine if there is an official policy regarding harassment. The topic is currently receiving a great deal of attention, and rightly so, and the awareness of a potentially hostile situation will hopefully be taken seriously.

Large companies often have an ombudsman, an individual charged with investigating and resolving these sorts of matters. Since the HR department typically represents the company's interests, that is, until a matter is proven to be harmful which is often too late, the ombudsman may offer a more impartial forum for resolving these complaints.

The internet offers vast potential for researching history and process. It also provides almost complete anonymity. You may be able to determine if the boss who is bullying you has done this before and how it has been treated.

Despite what most career coaches advise, it is always better to look for a job when you have one. Don't make an impulsive decision you may regret. If there is some way to neutralize the situation, by all means try to do so. If not, don't quit unless you have no other option and the situation is utterly unbearable. Better to be fired and receive unemployment benefits and worry about explaining why the separation occurred later. That is a bridge you cross at the right time.

Create a job posting search engine. It is a simple action to receive a daily update on open relevant postings. It takes virtually no time, so if you are busy it allows you to feel like you are engaging in some job search activity.

Join industry associations and professional groups. Attend meetings and network. Be bold. Have your pitch ready and rehearsed and follow up to arrange meetings.

Make sure your mean boss knows that you have their back. Bullies tend to be insecure and need to be reassured that they are the absolute center of your universe. Share information you gather about other departments and people, gossip that may be critical for your boss to protect both of you, and an occasional compliment doesn't hurt, as long as it doesn't come across as smarmy.

Never upstage or out-perform a mean boss especially in meetings. Let your boss take credit for any and everything publicly. Even if you know that your boss is wrong it is not your role or place to correct or disagree. Monster bosses respond poorly to being embarrassed by their subordinates. It is an easy way to guarantee that your boss makes your life at work a living hell. But make sure that behind the scenes you are engaging in non-aggressive evangelism to promote and protect yourself—networking and establishing relationships with the right peers and senior management, building a presence for yourself outside the company at industry events, and participating in special company-wide projects that will enhance your visibility.

Cohen said it’s also important to understand your boss's operating style. “This is a situation one of my clients presented to me just last week. She works on Wall Street for a small firm and was recently hired. Her boss is an 'old timer' by Wall Street standards - he is in his late 50's. For some reason, even though he recruited her to join the firm, he hasn't warmed up to her. She is feeling increasingly unwelcome and fearful in this difficult job market. He has taken clients away from her and he excludes her from meetings. My client feels, and rightly so, that her boss doesn't like her and that her job is in jeopardy.”

“I asked my client how she interacts with him: Is she friendly, does she engage in banter, does she spend time outside of work with her new colleagues? ‘No’ to all of the above. I also asked her how she engages with her boss. She told me that she separates work from life outside and that when she is on the job that is what her colleagues see: Serious, intense, quick in delivery,” he said. “Basically, not a friendly colleague. That is what we are working on. It is not so much them, it may be her. Our goal is to perform damage control. Try to make her a warmer, friendlier, more likable colleague. Since her boss is an old-line traditional Wall Street person, that is how he measures his relationships and how he treats the people who work for him - by how they make him feel.”

No matter what type of bad boss you have, there are ways to manage the situation and try to improve it before looking for a new job.

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