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Three Tips for Handling a Bad Boss

Vivia Chen

July 1, 2012

Devil_© dedMazay - Fotolia.comWho hasn't had a horrible boss? Anyone who says she's always had wonderful supervisors is lying.

But contrary to popular image, the bad boss is not necessarily an ogre who screams at underlings (though most law firms seem to have at least one beast they lock up during recruiting season). As management consultant John Beeson writes in the Harvard Business Review blog:

Bad bosses come in all shapes and sizes: abrasive and insensitive, indecisive, inconsistent and unfair, the micromanager who stifles your ability to perform and grow, and "matador managers" adept at sidestepping every tough issue that comes their way.

Nice, quiet guys can be bad bosses too. In fact, they are arguably the worst because they won't tell you what you've done wrong, but they'll stab you in the back at the right opportunity. I once worked for someone like that when I was an associate: a meek, wimpy-looking partner who could have been Woody Allen's less debonair cousin. He was a bit whiny, so I had no idea he didn't think I was solicitous enough to a client until I had my review. I thought his criticisms were grossly unfair, but he never had the nerve to say anything to my face. And being the demure associate I was, I never confronted him. (Larry, if you are still out there, I'd like to have a word with you.)

In the HBR post, Beeson makes some sensible suggestions about how to deal with difficult bosses. First, he reminds us we have to deal with certain realities:

    - Your boss, even if you think he is an established idiot, affects your job performance and shapes how other senior people view your performance and career potential.

    - You don't have the power to get your boss canned. "Frequently, if you do some digging, you'll find that your manager has some special ability his manager values—for example, a close relationship with a key customer or specific expertise that the boss lacks."

So what to do, short of quitting in desperation? Beeson suggests taking an analytical approach to the problem:

1. Define your boss's goals. "By helping your boss achieve his goals and communicating actively on those issues he cares about—and doing so in his preferred style—you can begin to build the boss's confidence and make an imperfect relationship acceptable."

Translation: If your boss doesn't look good, you won't look good.

2. Figure out your boss's working style. Does he want tasks performed immediately? A detailed product? "How does he take in and process information: reading, verbal updates, fact-based analysis? How does he make decisions: analytically or based on the endorsement of trusted lieutenants?"

Translation: Give it to him the way he likes it—even if it's wasteful and makes little sense.

3. Know your boss's talents. "Try to identify your boss's base of knowledge and expertise and convey a desire to learn from him. Often when a boss feels valued and confident that he is receiving all of the information he feels necessary to do his job, the seeds of a more positive relationship are sown." 

Translation: No one is immune to flattery. So tell her she's awesome—like, "You are such an amazing negotiator that those nine hours in that airless conference room just whizzed by!"

In other words, until you get that other dream job (or burn out), suck it up.

Related post: "How Would Your Associates Rate You?" and "Give 'Em Lip Service."

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].


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I really like comment #3. Everybody is good at something. Certainly, your horrible boss is, or he wouldn't have the job he has. Either that, or he has pictures of the CEO in a compromising position with a twelve-year-old (just kidding!). Seriously, bad bosses are like bad dates. It's always useful to learn what not to do and how not to behave.

Ms. Chen: Thank you again for another superb article and showing a positive side to a negative situation.

Vivia - while I agree that the way to your bad boss' heart is through sucking it up (and I see it at work every single day), I can only stomach it in small doses before I lose my mind and my cool. (and that's how I got to where I am today) :-))

It is especially important to spot the people who regularly fire underlings. You can ask around, subtly. Give those people what they want and try to also do work for others when you can. Becoming friends with such people is not a solution. Foxes get the rabbits who are close.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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