A bad boss can be a real drag on your 9-to-5. Not to mention your career development! If your manager plays favorites, belittles you, is passive-aggressive, and/or lacks basic emotional intelligence, that’s bad. Or maybe you’ve got a “pigeon boss” – the kind you never see until they fly in, crap all over everything, then fly right back out. That’s pretty bad, too.
But let’s say your boss isn’t a liar or a pigeon. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a great manager, either. Plenty of well-intentioned higher-ups are unintentionally harmful. I’ve worked with hundreds of teams, so I’ve seen ineffective (or non-existent) leadership first hand. The damage usually revolves around accountability, trust, and clarity of purpose. So how do you know if you have a bad boss? Here are a few tell-tale signs:
- A question is asked of the team, and you all look at each other waiting for somebody (anybody!) to answer. “It’s definitely not my place to speak up here,” you think. “But who should?”
- Your boss asks to be cc’d on every communication or insists on being included in every meeting.
- You know what you’re supposed to be doing… but you have no idea why.
If you’ve been cursed with a truly bad boss, it’s probably not worth trying to change their behavior. They’ll be unresponsive to, or feel resentful of, your efforts. But what if you love everything else about your job? It would be wrong to sacrifice your career goals or abandon your other, healthy workplace relationships just because you got saddled with a dud in the management department.
7 ways to deal with a bad boss
Instead of working against your bad boss (or getting a new job), work around them.
1. Structured decision-making
Accountability comes up in the context of decisions a lot. If your manager hasn’t communicated who will be making the call or is stalling on making the call themselves, suggest a structure that’ll help move things forward.
The DACI framework works really well for large- and medium-sized decisions, especially when the outcome affects how employees will go about their work.
You have a driver (D) who is responsible for making sure the decision gets made in a timely manner. There is one – yes, one! – approver (A) who ultimately makes the call. One or more contributors (C) weigh in with subject-matter expertise and recommendations. And people whose work will be affected by the outcome are informed (I) once the decision is reached.
Most likely, your manager will be the approver. Don’t be afraid to put yourself in the driver’s seat (as it were).
2. Blameless root cause analysis
Put a stop to scapegoating by methodically uncovering the root cause of problems. The “5 whys” technique is elegant and effective. Gather your fellow employees and start by asking “Why did this happen?” Then brainstorm answers. When you’ve agreed on one, ask “Okay, why was that the case?” …and so on. By the time you’ve asked “why” five times, you’ve probably gotten to the heart of the issue.
The key here is to steer the group away from making human errors about the human. If, for example, your website went down because Employee X pushed out some buggy code, frame that as a whole-team failure. Ask what the whole group can do to prevent it happening again: more rigor in testing? Mandatory code reviews?
3. Project ownership
If you’re not in the habit of designating an owner or lead for projects, now is the time to start – and the owner doesn’t have to be your boss. Identify one employee as the official task-master and cat-herder so the project is delivered on time and on budget. They might also be on the hook for making sure it yields successful results. If so, they need to play a big role in designing the solution and have the power to make the everyday decisions about the project and get the job done.
4. Project brain trust
So you don’t feel like you can trust your toxic boss to give you the credit for your ideas or even listen with an open mind. Are there others you do trust? Next time you’re on to a winning idea, try a technique popularized by Pixar: share it with a handful of relevant peers and leaders (including your boss, because it would look blatantly subversive otherwise) and ask for feedback. Let them know that, although they may not be deeply involved in executing on your idea, you value their skills and opinion and would like for them to act as your brain trust throughout the project.
I’m not saying trust issues run rampant at Pixar, by the way. Just that the technique can be really effective when you have a low-trust relationship with a bad boss.
5. Peer-to-peer sparring
The true meaning of sparring isn’t “fighting.” It’s about practicing. If you can’t get candid, constructive feedback from your boss, get it from your teammates. During a sparring session, you’ll gather a few peers and take turns showing something you’re working on. The group gets to challenge it, critique it, and (ideally) offer suggestions for making it even better.
Yes, holding up unfinished work feels scary. But the sooner you get feedback, the easier it is to incorporate it.
6. Objectives and key results (OKRs)
Before the start of each quarter, set one or two high-level objectives for yourself and identify measurable results you’ll see when you meet them. For example, an objective might be “improve customer loyalty.” The results might be things like “5% bump in positive brand mentions on social media” and “reduce customer churn by 10%.” (Note that these are outcomes, not a list of tasks to check off.)
OKRs can be your guiding light, but you’ll need your boss to sign off on them. If they are especially uncommunicative, share your OKRs with a note saying that, unless they point you in a different direction, these will be your priorities for the quarter.
This technique is similar to OKRs but is used in the context of a single project to establish priorities. Together with your teammates, think of all the things you could optimize for: cost, scope, timing, quality, security, user delight, media coverage, etc. Now draw sliding scales for each one that represent how flexible that aspect is. You’ll quickly see where the trade-offs lie (e.g., quick delivery often comes at the cost of scope or quality).
After agreeing on priorities as a group, everyone on the team will be able to make all those everyday decisions more confidently, and with the assurance that they’re in lock-step with the rest of the team.
You don’t have to be thwarted by a bad boss
A bad boss is hazardous to you personally and to your team’s health. First, they rot your career – and your self-esteem – from the inside out. You don’t have a trusted mentor to guide you. You don’t get the opportunities or the credit you deserve. You’re not growing, but the world around you is. And it’s leaving you behind.
Second, employees’ morale suffers. You’re pulled every which-way by conflicting priorities. You’re working with incomplete or incorrect information. You’re spinning your wheels without getting any traction – and you end up taking your frustrations out on your fellow team members.
The massive elephant in the room is whether or not to take your concerns to upper management or HR. Every organization and situation is so different, I’m loathe to hand out all-purpose advice. Leadership behavior is personal, not positional. You’re not obligated to rescue your entire team from a bad boss (though as Matthew McConaughey once said: “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”) Regardless of whatever else you do, channel your frustration into getting your job, career, and morale on the road to recovery using the techniques described here.
Find more ways to work effectively in the Atlassian Team Playbook. It’s by teams, for teams. (Your boss doesn’t even need to know.)
Special thanks to Sarah Goff-Dupont for her contribution to this article.