#43 – How to survive a bad manager
By Scott Berkun, June 2 2005
The 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
It’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.
If 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:
- Identify the things about your manager that have a positive impact on you.
- Prioritize them in importance (to you).
- Find ways to maximize your exposure to these things.
Then repeat, focused on minimizing negative qualities.
- Identify the things about your manager that negatively impact you.
- Prioritize them in importance (to you).
- 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.
Part 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
The 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.