#43 – How to survive a bad manager

#43 – How to survive a bad manager

By Scott Berkun, June 2 2005

An abanoned vanThe best advice for having a bad manager is to seek other employment. Don’t undervalue your happiness: it’s impossible to be happy if you work directly for someone you can’t stand. It may be difficult to find another job, but if you are willing to make compromises in other areas (salary, position, project, location, etc.) it will certainly be possible. Being happy and underpaid is a much better way to spend a life than unhappy and anything else.

Making life changes is difficult and leaving a bad manager might require weeks or months of less than pleasant living. However, on the other side of any decision to leave is something you can’t get where you currently are: the possibility of a good manager, and the sanity that it will bring you. The ‘never quit, tough it out’ attitude is a mistake if you are in a situation that can never result in your satisfaction. I think the act of finding a new job, or even quitting before you’ve found one, can be a way to take more control. It puts you back at center of your life, where you belong. There are risks involved, but it puts you, and not your manager or company, at the center of them.

But for the sake of this essay I’ll assume that you are either unwilling or unable to leave. Maybe you’re looking for something new and have to endure a bad manager until you’ve found it, or perhaps your family is heavily dependent on you and your options are limited. That’s fine. Just remember to re-read the first paragraph every month or so to make sure you’re considering all your choices, and not hiding behind the deceptive safety of a merely acceptable job, when what you need is something more.

How bad is your manager?

There are many different factors that contribute to negative opinions of managers. It’s not the goal of this essay to list them all, but here are some of the basics:

  • Inconsistent: Says one thing, does something else.
  • Arrogant. Always believes they are right, and makes sure you know it.
  • Egocentric. Makes every issue and decision about them.
  • Doesn’t listen: is offered advice but ignores it before even considering it.
  • Self-centered: Doesn’t support, encourage or look out for their team.
  • Mean/Abusive: Makes people feel bad for no reason.
  • Micro-manager: Refuses to delegate anything, despite what they say.
  • Coward: Backs down whenever challenged.
  • Isolated: doesn’t involve others in decisions, and rarely looks for ways to support/encourage the work of their team.
  • Incompetent: Lacks basic communication, intellectual, or emotional skills needed to for their role.
  • Checked out: Isn’t committed to their work or their team.

Skimming this list should have one of two effects: Either you are now certain you have the worst manager in the history of civilization, or you’ve recognized a few bad traits that your manager does not have. If you are in the former group please re-read the first paragraph of this essay. Odds are good you can do better.

For most of you the above list should point out a few bad qualities your manager does not have. This is good. You should take a moment to imagine how much worse it could be (picture an evil manager, wearing a red cape, in a dark dungeon of a cubicle farm, laughing to himself as he uses the list above as a checklist for his daily activities). If you can see some behavior in your manager than isn’t as bad as others there is room for you to make better use of your manager.

Skills: strengths and weaknesses

Picking grainsIt’s easy to fall into the trap of labeling people as bad, and blaming them for everything. Saying “my manager sucks”  may relieve tension, but it’s not going to improve your working conditions. Remember that managers are just people, and all people are better at some things than at others. Even if your manager does suck, he sucks in some ways more than others.

When you are working for someone else, good or bad, it pays to spend some time evaluating what their strengths and weaknesses are. The more time you can spend exposed to their strengths, and the less time you spend exposed to their weaknesses, the less frustrated you will be.

It sounds elementary, but the following exercise works wonders. Make two lists: Strengths and Weaknesses. Fill them in with all of your opinions about your manager. Think back to the first day you started working with them. Were they more useful then? Are they good at working with certain people? Fighting for budget increases? Put it all in the list. Build an analysis of your manager.

If you have a hard time with this, or end up with his only strength being “can use his picture for karate practice”, talk with co-workers that work for the same manager. They will have had different experiences with him/her and will have a different perspective (Do it privately over coffee if there are things you want to keep confidential). Pay attention to who works best (or worst) with your manager and talk to them. If you ask enough people you’ll likely conclude that every person sees the manager differently. They might all have criticisms, but they may be about different things or be for different reasons. With information from several sources, you now see your manager more clearly than you did before.

Acceptance

Stairs at UW libraryIf you are able to look at your manager as a person, seeing their strengths and weaknesses, good traits and bad traits, you are now ready to accept them. They are who they are, and no matter what you do they are unlikely to change as much as you’d like. Change only happens when the person wants to change. You can make suggestions, or bring things to their attention, but people only make changes when they choose to. It is never in your control.

Maturity, in part, means accepting things that truly can not be changed for what they are. Wasting time being angry at the ground for being dirty, or the ocean for being wet is absurd, right? So why waste time being angry at your self-centered manager for being self centered? I’m not suggesting tolerating abuse or bad treatment. Acceptance doesn’t mean to smile while someone spits in your face. You should defend yourself and take actions to make you happy (Advice on this below: see self-reliance). But what I am saying is that the emotions of anger or frustration that you direct at your manager don’t serve you very well in the long run. If you find ways to direct your energy elsewhere, at places where that energy can give you leverage, there’s hope for making things better.

Maximize, Minimize and avoid

The simplest place to direct energy is as follows:

  1. Identify the things about your manager that have a positive impact on you.
  2. Prioritize them in importance (to you).
  3. Find ways to maximize your exposure to these things.

Then repeat, focused on minimizing negative qualities.

  1. Identify the things about your manager that negatively impact you.
  2. Prioritize them in importance (to you).
  3. Find ways to minimize your exposure to these things.

These seem cheesy, I know, but they work. They force you out of your emotions and into tactics. Making lists and prioritizing them is a good strategy for dealing with anything because it forces you to work in relative terms (I hate Milano cookies less than chocolate chip cookies), which is more useful than absolutes (I hate all cookies).

In both strategies listed above think about how and when you interact with your boss. Are there kinds of conversations you should have more often with them? Less often? Are there certain triggers that put you in uncomfortable situations or exposure you to their negative traits? Are there things you can do to minimize the chance of those triggers happening?

In the case of a micro-manager, you may need to manage when they are involved in your work, trying to find the minimum amount they need to leave you alone. Or in the case of a manager that is extremely creative, you want them involved early on in projects to help you conceive and develop ideas.

This entire process (maximizing/ minimizing) is easier if you have longer term goals in mind. If you are thinking about what skills/experiences you want to develop over the next 6 months, the way you will look at your manager will change. Then instead of responding to your manager you’ll be using your manager to help you to achieve your goals.

Become self-reliant

Bench in RedmondPart of the problem with bad managers is that they don’t do much to set you up to succeed. One solution to this is to take on more responsibility for your success. You may need to define for your manager exactly what you need to be successful. This could be ownership of certain kinds of decisions, more resources, or just the room to succeed or fail on your own. Once you’ve defined exactly what you need, prioritized it, and translated it into terms your manager might understand, it’s your job to bring these requirements to them. “Here’s what I need to be successful with my responsibilities here. How can you help me be successful?.” You can then discuss with your manager, on your own terms, what you need from them.

If their response isn’t favorable (or worse, involves laughter), you know exactly where you stand: you need to look elsewhere. Knowing where you stand is very important. You don’t have to guess or suspect anymore. You can confidently make decisions based on the reality of your situation.

Look around your organization and see where else you might get some of what you need. Seek out mentors, people with more experience or different strengths than you, and ask if they’ll periodically offer you advice (meet twice a month for coffee). The simplest way to obtain this kind of relationship is to ask for it. Offer to do it with them on a trial basis and if both parties aren’t getting value from it after a month, agree to stop. Often there are experienced people who aren’t currently managing anyone that will enjoy mentoring someone who is interested in their guidance.

It’s possible to have a functioning relationship with your manager that involves only a minimum of interaction. As long as you and your manager agree on your goals, and you are getting your work done at an acceptable or better level, how you go about getting it done shouldn’t matter. You might need to go out of your way to keep your manager happy and believing whatever they need to believe, but you may be able to see this as a tax on the work, sort of like filling out forms or other administrivia, not the work itself.

Bad managers may have bad managers

On one group I worked in I watched someone who I thought was a decent manager decay into a disaster. I mean a seriously bad evil therapy inducing ugly manager. Everyone in the group eventually hated working for him. One major reason for the decline was that his manager changed. He was used to certain kinds of support and encouragement, and when he switched into a new role with more responsibility, and had a new manager, that support and encouragement disappeared. Everyone that came into his group after the change saw him very differently than I did. I saw him as a good person who was currently struggling. They saw him as a “bad manager”.

The lesson I learned was that sometimes good people become bad managers in response to difficult situations. This could be personal (divorce, illness, addiction) or professional. They may be struggling to survive with a manager or lifestyle they can’t handle, and are unable to prevent this from impacting their ability to manage you.

While knowing this won’t help you directly in your own situation it may give you some insight as to where to direct your energy (or your frustration). If you were so fed up with your manager that you wanted his job, paying some attention to his management landscape is well worth the time. It’s possible your bad manager is actually protecting you from an even worse manager above him.

Work life balance

People outside of workThe worst work experiences I’ve had forced me to recognize a very important thing: work does not have to define my life. Work can be at the center of everything if you choose, but there are many other ways to live happy, fulfilling, meaningful lives.

(Meaningfulness pop quiz: Is what you are doing today going to mean anything to anyone, yourself included, in a month? a year? 5 years? 20?)

I had never thought about it, but for much of my adult life most of my pride came through the workplace. But then in this one particular experience, the workplace became so uncomfortable, so depressing, so frustrating, that I found I couldn’t be happy until I found ways to invest *less* of myself at work. It took me a long time, and lots of suffering, to figure this out (I’m stubborn), but when I did I discovered a new kind of solution. I needed to depend more on my life outside of work, with friends, family, community and interests, to make myself feel complete and happy. Then no matter how bad things got at work I had a place to go where I was safe. My self-esteem began to come from places other than the workplace and I became a better person for it.

So having a bad manager, or working on a bad team, can be a reminder to you: are you investing your energy and your life in the right places? If work is it for you, great. Either follow some of the advice above or double your search for a new job. But if you recognize other ways to live a happy life that don’t depend on work, start growing them now. I suspect you can find other people who feel exactly the same way that you do once you start looking for them. They might even be working for the same person you are.

39 Responses to “#43 – How to survive a bad manager”

  1. Mark

    Hello Scott,

    After graduating from college in ’04, i job-hopped a lot for about a year and didnt really enjoy the feeling of making and losing relationships. So i get this offer to be a PHP developer which is exactly what I was looking for. I set a personal goal to stay at least 3 years to get the concrete experience that’s needed to jump-start my career. My current manager was only promoted because the former manager had a falling out with the owner of the company. Since then, it’s been a miserable experience. Every single idea that I have to improve the way things are shut down w/o consideration. I feel as if the only reason is because he doesn’t want a good idea to come from someone that wasn’t from him. This really affected me and really killed my motivation to be productive. Your article really hit home and really makes it clear on what i should do now.

    Thanks for taking the time to listen and open my eyes.

    -Mark

    Reply
  2. Katya

    I`m from Ukraine and thought i would learn a lot from western managers in the EUBAM (the EU Border Assistance Mission for Moldova and Ukraine). Both heads of two field offices were so-to say maniacs and absolutely unprofessional in regards of leadership, showed total discrepancy with the UN core values – now I can tell for hours about their UNdemocratic governance and how they treat people (equally bad). Sure, there are other managers in teh Mission who were quite human and adequate. Disgusting and dissapointing. Unfair, schizoid-like behaviour when whatever you do you are wrong in advance and if you have your opinion and dare to think – you are the biggest sinner.. I would say that I even wonder how such ill people could get the job of a manger in the Mission funded by the European Commission?!

    Reply
  3. Anish

    My manager’s a total idiot. He’s so bad people join our company and leave in less than 5 months working with him.everyone has postioned their chairs as far away from his desk as possible and refuse to talk to him unless it’s absolutely essential. He belittles people any time he can and I think it must be to try and assert power and control over us bt instead it makes him look like an idiot. We have $5000 deals going on and this guy’s complaining that someone made a typo on an email. He’l like the disease in the office and seems completely unaware of why none of us ever want to be there with him.

    Reply
  4. Joseph Kenasuk Kuji

    My dear,
    You have mention my real problem in your article and your advice has convinced me while reading the content of the document. please keep on snding guidance all the time to my e0-mail address.

    Reply
  5. sam

    Having just left a job due t a bad manager, I completely agree with both parts of your advice. I believe I was right to leave – the company was going down the pan, rapidly, due to incompetence of both CEO and Exec Directors. However, it’s just a shame i didn’t employ the ‘Tactics’ part before I left – I spent most of my 18 months in the company being extremely angry, and focusing on the negatives. Sure, they were there, but by focusing on the bad bits I was unable to appreciate the good bits of my job and was pretty miserable.

    Had i followed this advice, I still would have left, but I’d have had a much more productive 18 months prior to leaving, and wouldn’t be left with serious stress!!

    Thanks Scott

    Reply
  6. mohlatlego @ limpopo

    i was working with a manager as an acting PA, but to my supprise when she was going to shortlist she dumped me like i am nothing. by reading the above information i found it very important now i can realise that i am worth it.

    Reply
  7. Mercy

    I think you are great!

    Thank you,

    Mercy

    Reply
  8. Bees Knees

    Well, you posted this essay quite some time ago, but I really enjoyed this one. I plan on doing the analysis of my boss in the next few days.

    A few questions:

    1) Where do you think the Human Resources office fits into all of this?

    2) Why is Bad Manager Syndrome such an epidemic? I understand that alot of good people become bad managers simply because they learned that behavior…how can managers learn leadership? My company doesn’t have any kind of “Leadership Training” program, and I think it should.

    Thanks again.

    Reply
  9. F Green

    Yes, I can objectively find ways to work around, even sublimate my managers incredibly low social IQ, inability to ever praise, encourage or at least criticize in socially accepted ways… what I cannot abide is her astonishing lack of civility toward our retail store’s stock room manager/assistant manager. Our store’s working environment has reached unsustainable levels of tension. Our regional manager will soon pay a ‘people meeting’ visit. I will say that while I try to make each day with our manager my first day working with her, as open minded as that… the fact that I feel pressed to do so speaks volumes.

    Reply
  10. The deep

    People doesn’t change their company, they do change their managers!

    Reply
  11. Didi

    This was a great piece to read. I’m proud to see I employed most of the tactics you suggest, but I wish I read it 18 mos ago! I did get to the point of no return-when I decided my life was my job and I was never going to change anything there–and no matter how much I changed myself to conform I was never going to like myself. Ultimately I left 9 mos after officially learning who my new manager was going to be, and trying to be open minded to someone whom I did not trust or respect. I knew going in there was little that could happen to change my views- because my new manager was my former peer (another story) and I was losing faith in the C-level at that point.

    Anyway, thank you for verifying my thoughts and actions were on spot. It was liberating to leave on many levels. I sleep now!

    Reply
  12. james L

    If you never work you’ll never have a bad boss, hey no one said it was a good trade-off.

    Reply
  13. solomon admassu

    this is solomon from ethiopia I donot know what to say I am working eu my immediate supervisor a bad out look for me I donot no what am I doing?

    Reply
  14. Rosa Gonzalez

    My Manager is all the things you mentioned above. I am suffering here at work. I am a single parent with 3 kids and I have been so stressed. A friend e-mailed me this article–I needed to read this and I will also print it out so that I can read it over and over again. I need to make some changes.

    Reply
  15. Lis

    My manager has had her job for 27 years, The place is a pig stye, covered in papers, and nothing is upgraded. She is a total micromanager, picking on people, all questions must go through her but she’s never available, no talking at our desk, and she makes me run adding machine tapes on Excel columns because she doesn’t trust the program. I turned in my notice today. 7 months of this and I realize that life is too short to be controlled by a psycho. I relate to your article. Leave.

    Reply
  16. Peter

    It looks like I will be following your advice. I decided a couple of months ago that the situation is irreperable. It is not one line managener but line management as a whole in my company is completely ineffective. In addition, there are a few that really fit the profile of a bad manager as you sketch it.

    I have never experienced an organisation where the gap between line management and the development organisation was that big before.

    Tomorrow I will be handing in my resignation with a nice new contract already signed and waiting to be sent. The strange thing is that I would have gladly stayed if line management would have understood the problems and taken appropriate action, depite all the other problems in the organisation.

    Reply
  17. Peter

    With any job in the real world you always run the risk of having a bad boss. The funny thing is that more than often they disappear before you do if you are a long term employee.

    Reply
  18. Ana

    I had a horrible manager in Graduate school who took the form of my adviser. He bullied and belittled his students, then chastised them for under-performing in the program. I would literally come to class with my stomach in knots and would have crying spells everyday. I eventually withdrew from the university and moved home. I just couldn’t handle the headache of it all anymore.

    I was fortunate because even though this situation was utterly crushing emotionally, I was able to snag a job in a different industry making much more than I had in my previous one. And the environment is healthy. Sometimes you just have to walk away. There is no excuse put up with that kind of stuff, abuse under any circumstance is never OK. I have since re-connected with friends, family, and met the love of my life. True happiness really is more important than anything out there. Nice article.

    Reply
  19. Leam

    Good article; I especially appreciate being reminded to find your own definition of success. It is too easy to get caught up in pleasing someone who cannot be pleased and does not seem to have your interests at heart. Life is good, and work is a part of life. But it should not rule the day.

    Reply
  20. Eric

    This describes all managers I have ever worked for. I think this should be entitled “How to survive a typical manager”

    Reply
  21. Jen D

    Hello. I came across your blog entry after getting lectured at work. I work for a small company that remodels and refinishes basements within the home. My co worker and I work and develop simulations and software for the company to help with other people aka the dealers to help them sell our products to customers. Unfortunately we are always thrown under the bus and seen as people who take our work as a joke and not get stuff done.

    This is mostly due to the fact that we get requests to modle in 3D, implement Flash into their websites, program in objective C, program software programs in Adobe Flash from scratch asap! We are not a NOT a software development company and we don’t have a manager that truly understands what we are doing or what we do. My co worker and I are just two people who work hard to give our company what they want. Unfortunately because we are just two people we work long hours to get things done but it takes longer for us to get things done. We have to plan, come up with a proper project, create and produce working graphics, and software programmed files.

    Mind you my Co worker is in charge of me but when I don’t get my part done because the work load is to heavy he gets yelled at manage ment for it. And when I ask to speak or speak in general they don’t let me speak and play the mind game where they get “your going to have this to me tomorrow right?”

    I have literally made myself sick on the current project we are working on. Been to the hospital and doctor SEVERAL times. I started it and have been working on this since May and it is now September and it was due in August. Its a program that when we started working on it together turned into a bigger beast than we had anticipated and our manager kept wanting to add more so its taking longer. This happend last year but this time its worse.

    I have been doing the best I can every day to get my part done and i told them that I’m not working 16 hour days 7 days a week for little pay anymore. I’m only working monday though friday 9 to 5 like im suppose to. We were told that they didn’t want to hire extra help and other things but now seeing as its been a while with the software they decided to change their minds but we are too far along now that we don’t need help. We may be almost done but its software. It can be unpredictable and buggy.

    I have been looked down upon and not even given a chance to explain the situation. When the manager who came up and is in full charge of this project hardly comes and checks up on us or has meetings. When I ask to have them im shoved aside. So Now its all of our faults. There is way more to this story but I know now that I must leave. Even if its a cashier job I can still get the graphics/ animation job that iv strived to look for for a long time now.

    I thank you for the article and I will look to it for reference in the future. :)

    Reply
    • Marji

      The part about realising that yes it’s really that bad and it’s time to look around the company for mentors and others who can help you really resonated with me.

      My former manager was so bad – micromanaging but always stalling on geting anything done and making it difficult for our team to meet deadlines – that the other managers and senior staff eventually did their best to not work with him at all. That meant they started getting other people to do the work of our team so not only did the manager get sidelined, we did too. Eventually they took a whole lot of responsibilities off our manager’s position, so we lost a whole lot of our own work too and were left to watch others do what we should have been doing (and wanted to do).

      That manager’s gone now and the new manager (who seems okay but is very new) now is in charge of a team with skills that others in the organisation are now doing instead and a legacy reputation which of those who remain don’t deserve.

      I wish I’d read this article when it first came out, but I have been doing some of the things suggested in it in the last six months and it’s really helped me refocus and face the situation how it is instead of dwelling on what it should have been. Hopefully we can get others in the organisation to see that the whole team was not the same as that manager – far from it. Many of us are not in a position to find another job due to family and other commitments. Don’t know about the future yet but at least it feels a bit more positive.

      Reply
  22. Siddu

    Hi Scott,

    I agree and today is the situation for me I have quit a job because of manager with uncontrolled frustrations. I have had lot of patience and situation. Today I do not have a job but I am happy instead of working with these bad managers. The other side of face there is a absolute challenege but infact have to work hard to get one more job.

    Thanks foir the suggestion

    Reply
  23. Sarah

    I have been working for this company for just over a year and I have stuck to it only because I have a good friend there that helped me through. Now it is getting too much and Its affecting my relationship and my life outside of work. My manager is all the above points under how bad is your manager. I do a good job and other staff aren’t pulling their weight and let the good ones take on all the work. The manager just lets them do as they like and not enforcing any kind of positive team environment. For a long time Ive just felt stuck. I think the only thing for me to do is find another job I cant stay in a place like this just for a work colleague. They have a very high climb in employee absence and they have gone through around 10 staff since Ive worked there.

    Reply
  24. gcbenison

    If you can’t realistically just leave, put some effort into developing a strategy to make it so that you can. Even if you’re not successful for a long time, your efforts will at least empower you and distract you from what’s bothering you.

    Reply
  25. Ammar Mango

    Excellent topic and always relevant. There are two aspects here that need to be tackled, the first is dealing with a bad manager, which I try to tackle in this you tube video http://youtu.be/V-KMojzH8Ys
    The second is how to stop worrying about being a “Bad Manager” everytime you have to make an unpopular decision, which I tackle in this post on my blog http://pmoconsultant.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/is-a-merciful-manager-a-weak-manager/
    I would love to hear from you on what you think.
    Regards,
    Ammar Mango

    Reply
  26. Monserrate

    It’s really a cool and helpful piece of info. I am glad that you simply shared this helpful info with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  27. mass log

    Great article. I am experiencing some of these issues as well.
    .

    Reply
  28. sam zawawi

    I started a new job and had a great manager for three months and a half. Loved the company and people until a new young Cantonese was hired and was assigned as my new manager and hell started.

    All of a sudden I moved from a macro management professional style to a micro manager that wants to be involved in all my projects and objects to anything I do

    She is very bossy and really stressing me out. I was working in I.T for 24 years holding a senior title and 54 years old. She is 29

    I am looking for a new job but really hard to find as my salary is high, Please advise….

    Reply
    • jose

      I am not sure if you will read this, however I too am in a similar boat, as I will be 58, and work for a nearly-total idiot. My future, the 8 years I potentially have left with this company, is dependent on this moron, and there seems no way out, as I have been looking for work for the last 4 months, aggressively and find no offers and in most cases not even an acknowledgement of my application. For now, the survival skill is to know where the “land mines are”, avoid them at all costs, stay under the radar, and something I will not compromise on, is continue to do superb work. Nothing destigmatizes better than success, even if these idiots refuse to recognize it. At least one has the satisfaction of doing very good quality work. I wish I could be more encouraging, however at our age, it is very hard to find a new job. Don’t quit without a parachute, whatever you do! Best of luck.

      Reply
  29. Everett

    This has really made me look at my job. I have a manager who belittles everyone around her. Every time I go into work she says something that implies that she thinks I’m stupid just because I have no training whatsoever doesn’t make me stupid.

    Reply
  30. angel sanchez

    I have a hard time getting my employees to like me. I work for a crappy company where the boss’s son works in the same building as I do. I do not have a good handle on managerial experience and I micromanage everything because I don’t know any other way to manage. If someone can give me advise please? My direct supervisor also works in the same building as I do and he is a cheap moron as well. he held a horrible barbecue for the employees last week and didn’t even care.

    Reply
  31. MJ

    Great piece, thanks – really good to get some practical advice. In my particular situation, I don’t *want* to leave – it’s not just a security/pay thing. Everything else in the job is great, the other staff, the work, the conditions etc. Just one manager who is a pain in the ass on a daily basis. This person ticks nearly everything on your list. I don’t want to be driven out of a good job by one douchebag, and I know from experience that you can’t guarantee things will be any better in the next place. Sometimes they’ll be worse. So I’m grateful for the plan above :)

    Reply

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