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The Learning Curve

4 virtuoso strategies for handling your bad boss

We can’t always change our horrible bosses — but we can transform the ways we interact with them.
Two men in suspenders standing next to each other in an office, possibly enduring the presence of a bad boss.
Still from the film 'Office Space' (1999) / Maximum Film / Alamy Stock Photo
Key Takeaways
  • Research shows that while bad bosses are rare, they still harm people’s mental health and diminish their effectiveness at work. 
  • Bad bosses are often born from a lack of training, feelings of insecurity, or poor communication skills.
  • Key strategies include opening the lines of communication and setting less porous boundaries.
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Bosses suck. It’s a truism drilled into our heads endlessly by film and TV. There’s Michael Scott from The Office, Bill Lumbergh from Office Space, Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Back in the sixties, Alan Brady made everyman Dick van Dyke’s work life miserable with his off-camera screams. Heck, if The Flintstones is to be believed, bad bosses are living fossils dating as far back as the Cretaceous period.

So, it may be surprising to learn that according to research, bad bosses are actually rare. A 2023 Pew Research poll showed that the majority of Americans regard their bosses as capable, confident, caring, and fair. Across the pond, a 2020 study in Industrial Relations found that only 13% of European workers reported suffering a bad boss.

That’s great news, but hardly comforting if you count yourself among those who must endure a horrible boss. Not only does the daily struggle make you a less effective employee by draining your motivation and enthusiasm. It also induces stress that ultimately follows you home, which can have knock-on effects in your relationships and life satisfaction. So while bad bosses may be rarer in real life than on TV, they still suck.

Thankfully, there are better ways to handle a bad boss than bumbling through your workday like a character on a sitcom. Here are four strategies recommended by experts:

1. Check your perceptions at the office door

Bad bosses are as much a personal experience as a work-related one. Your boss’s actions can make you feel dismissed, under-appreciated, threatened, or isolated from the team dynamics. Those feelings are completely valid, and any situation leading to them should be addressed.

However, before addressing the situation, take time first to check your perceptions. High emotions can trigger the brain’s threat system, pushing us to respond in ways that are quick and cathartic but ultimately unhelpful. Those same emotions can steer us to misleading conclusions by coloring our understanding with biases, assumptions, and preconceptions.

For instance, people tend to attribute bad boss behavior to personality flaws, but that’s not necessarily the case. Research from Gallup shows that the top two reasons people become managers are that they were either successful in a non-managerial role or simply have tenure at their company. In other words, your boss may not have been properly trained for the role. 

Their dismissive attitude might not be because they undervalue you and your contributions. It might stem from the fact that they don’t know how to properly communicate appreciation, are worried about being judged, or don’t realize it’s their job to ensure their team feels good about their work (and not simply finish it on schedule).

All of which, again, absolutely should be addressed. But by taking the time to consider the full context of the situation — and not just the incidents that flare up your emotions — you can approach that task with the compassion and level-headedness necessary to reach a beneficial conclusion.

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2. Open more lines of communication

As we’ve already seen, few bosses are trained to be leaders, and that includes how to effectively communicate with their teams. Honestly, most bosses are simply winging it, and this can lead to problems.

Research out of Japan found that supervisors with good communication skills have mentally healthier employees; meanwhile, bad communication increases the probability of people quitting. Additionally, Gallup found that only about half of employees know what is expected of them at work, and one cause for that dismal sum is lackluster engagement and feedback from supervisors.

If your boss is bad at communicating, take the initiative and open the lines of communication yourself. For example, if they don’t make the time to discuss your role, your concerns, or your future with the team or company, then schedule 1-on-1 meetings with them to address those things. If they are bad at communicating expectations, get in the habit of asking questions during team meetings or when instructions are handed out.

By modeling good communication, you may subtly demonstrate to your boss where they can improve. If the communication continues to break down, you may need to set up a meeting where you can directly address the problem collaboratively.

When you have a negative interaction with a colleague, it is tempting to focus on all the ways that you would like them to change, but you cannot always control how they think, what they value, and how they behave.

Amy Gallo

3. Strategize according to behavior

Sometimes the problem isn’t a lack of communication but how your boss communicates. Here, the strategies get tricky because bad bosses follow their own version of the Karenina principle: “Good bosses are all alike; every bad boss is bad in their own way.”

Some bad bosses use a “command and control” style that over-communicates to regulate every micro-detail of everyone’s work. Other bad bosses lack consistency in what they want and how they want it. Still other bad bosses treat the office like a Darwinian arena, where work is a death match and only the strong survive

In her book Getting Along, Amy Gallo, co-host of the Harvard Business Review’s Women at Work podcast, identified eight archetypes of difficult colleagues — and, by extension, bosses. They are:

  1. The insecure boss
  2. The pessimist
  3. The victim
  4. The passive-aggressive peer
  5. The know-it-all
  6. The tormentor
  7. The biased coworker
  8. The political operator

“​​I wanted to help people figure out how to have more productive relationships with those people who push their buttons,” Gallo tells Big Think+

Consider the insecure boss. According to Gallo, you’ll recognize this archetype if they are overly concerned with what others think, can’t stick with a decision, always highlight their own expertise, and require that everything has their stamp of approval. 

If that sounds like someone you know, then Gallo recommends reframing your relationship. Instead of trying to compete with your boss — a strategy that’s likely to backfire — try to approach things with an eye toward allyship. Highlight your cooperative successes (without downplaying your efforts). Watch your language so questions don’t sound like challenges (but honest inquiries instead). And offer appreciation and compliments (when genuine and appropriate).

Other difficult bosses will require different strategies. A tormentor may challenge your commitment or undermine you in front of others. But rather than try to go tit-for-tat, Gallo advises helping them feel seen by acknowledging their sacrifices and having a direct conversation to address the challenges — something with an “I’d like to have a more positive relationship” kind of vibe.

Ultimately, no one strategy can manage every bad boss variant you may encounter. People and the relationships they form are all complicated and unique. But by considering their behavior carefully, you can devise a strategy that works best.

Cartoon of a man in a room.
Meanwhile, TV show The Jetsons suggests that bad bosses will be with us well into the future. But if we manage those relationships with more care and compassion, they don’t have to be. (Credit: The Jetsons Wiki / Universal Pictures)

4. Establish new boundaries

Regardless of which variant you suffer, a word of warning: It’s not your job to fix them.

“When you have a negative interaction with a colleague, it is tempting to focus on all the ways that you would like them to change,” Gallo says, “but you cannot always control how they think, what they value, and how they behave. What you can impact is the way you think about and react to them, and then how you behave.”

In other words, your job is to set the boundaries that allow you to interact with your boss professionally while also caring for your own well-being. Is that unfair, especially if your boss and their behavior are the heart of the problem? Maybe, but that’s the challenge of any relationship.

With that said, if you’ve tried everything and your relationship with your bad boss doesn’t improve — or grows more toxic with time — you may need to simply interact less with them. This step can take many forms. It may mean rescheduling your work day so there’s less overlap. It may mean working from home if that’s an option. It may mean talking with HR to determine if any formal steps can be taken or asking to be reassigned. 

In extreme cases, it may mean quitting. As the adage goes, “People don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad bosses.”

But with these strategies, hopefully you can join those who see their boss as, while not perfect, at least fair — rather than an overused screenwriter trope.


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