Help! I have a boss from hell

A bad boss can make your life difficult and even compel you to quit your job. But you can learn to deal with him or her effectively

Sketch of boss yelling at subordinate

When I first started offering my Dealing with Difficult People seminars, I assumed that the clients who make unusual demands and have bizarre expectations would be the most difficult group in the workplace. My second guess was difficult colleagues. How wrong was I in making those assumptions! I found that overwhelmingly, it was the supervisors and managers that were the most difficult people faced by the 55,000 participants of my seminar.

When supervisors are wrong

Why do supervisors behave badly with their subordinates? Because most supervisors, managers, foremen/women, department heads, executives and even CEOs of companies do not receive the basic training necessary to successfully supervise others; unfortunately, an MBA degree does not teach you this skill.

Here are some of the things that supervisors do that earn them a bad name:

  • Embarrass their staff by disciplining them in front of workmates or clients.
  • Label staff’s behaviour [stupid, dumb] or make sarcastic remarks, instead of trying to correct the actual behaviour of the staff member.
  • Don’t give recognition for a job well done; concentrate on the 2 per cent of the things their staff do incorrectly, instead of the 98 per cent they do well.
  • When dealing with customer complaints, they don’t back up their staff and don’t give employees a chance to tell their side of the story before acting. The manager can always say to the client, “Let me investigate this and I’ll get back to you.”
  • Don’t provide an up-to-date job description with key performance indicators and standards of performance for the tasks performed by their staff.
  • Don’t provide the necessary training to fill the gap between job requirements and employee’s skills.
  • Conduct performance appraisals on staff without a proper job description upon which to base their evaluation; if the employee doesn’t know what’s expected of him/her, and the supervisor doesn’t know either—how can a fair evaluation of the performance be conducted?
  • Have one set of company rules for staff, another for themselves. Bend the rules when clients go over the head of front-line staff, causing embarrassment for staff members.
  • No set policy and procedure manuals available; rules and regulations of the company are not clearly defined.
  • Harass staff [either through bullying or sexual harassment].
  • Do nothing to improve the employee’s interest in their jobs. Some are afraid their staff is now ready to compete for their job, so do as little as possible to develop their skills for their next step up. It’s a proven fact that more supervisors are not promoted because there is nobody prepared to take over their existing job.
  • Are not available when their staff needs their help; say they have an “open door policy” but are always “too busy” to deal with their staff’s problems.
  • Won’t listen to their staff’s suggestions about better ways to complete tasks. The person doing the job normally has the best ideas on how to do the job better, faster, and more efficiently.
  • Are perfectionists and expect everything to be done perfectly. Just because they can do the job in 10 minutes [they have 15 years experience] they expect the newcomer to do it in the same amount of time and with the same level of accuracy.
  • Nepotism [hiring relatives and close friends].

If this describes the actions of your supervisors/managers, quitting your job is not the only way out. And if it’s you making these mistakes, well, you know what needs to be done.

It’s a proven fact that more supervisors are not promoted because there is nobody prepared to take over their existing job

So what can an employee do?

Complain—that’s what you can do! Learn how to use feedback to let your boss know what his/her behaviour is doing to you. This takes nerve, but most bosses will respect you for having the courage to do so. For example, if your boss has disciplined you publicly, wait until s/he has calmed down and ask for five minutes of his/her time. Say something like, “I have a problem, and I need your help in solving it. Last week, you criticised me three times in front of my co-workers. I felt very humiliated and demoralised. In the future, could I ask you to save those kinds of comments for when we can have some privacy?”

A boss who calls you names

Monica’s supervisor labelled her as stupid and dumb. So she decided to approach her about this privately. She said to her, “I have a problem, and I need your help in solving it. On my performance appraisal, you put down that you didn’t like my attitude, but when I asked for specifics you refused to give them to me. As well, the last few times you’ve corrected my work, you’ve said that I was ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’. I’m upset that you’ve given me those labels and I don’t know how to improve my performance or what you really want from me.”

Her supervisor was listening to her intently, so Monica went on, “I’d like to go back to the comment from the performance appraisal about my ‘attitude’. What did I do wrong that you objected to?”

Her supervisor replied, “Well, you were rude to the client who walked in yesterday.” [Rude is another label that does not discuss her behaviour.]

“What specifically did I say to that client that was rude?”

“You told her that you had better things to do with your time other than listen to her constant complaints.”

Now Monica has something tangible that she could deal with and change.

Learn how to use feedback to let your boss know what his/her behaviour is doing to you

A boss who is irresponsible

A receptionist’s task was to take and pass on telephone messages to the managers in her office. Mr Bailey had called asking for Mr Smith four times, and the receptionist had placed the messages on his desk throughout the day. She knew that Mr Smith wasn’t very busy that day and had ample time to answer the messages.

The fifth time Mr Bailey called, he accused the receptionist of not passing on his messages. She’d had enough of her boss’s poor business practice and decided to speak to him to see if she could correct the situation. She said to him, “I have a problem, and I need your help in solving it [always a great opening line]. Mr Bailey called in and left messages for you five times today. The last time he phoned, he accused me of not passing his messages on to you. What should I tell him the next time he calls?” This way, she dumped the problem into the lap of the person causing it.

Precautions while handling a difficult boss

Before you decide to say anything to an aggressive supervisor, ask yourself if you might make matters worse by saying something. If this person treats everyone the same belligerent way, it may not be worth the risk of discussing the matter. If you’re working for a truly incorrigible boss, and there’s little likelihood of there being a change in his or her behaviour, you may have to mark time until you can get away from the bully.

Go higher up the chain of command only when the supervisor’s behaviour is affecting the rest of the staff. Only group complaints can oust an ineffective supervisor if done correctly. Make sure the group uses facts to explain their grievances, giving details of what has actually happened—costs in lost revenue, customer relations, delays, unmet deadlines, unnecessary overtime, production stoppages, etc.

If it’s only you the supervisor has trouble with, you might be facing a personality clash. This can happen to two individuals who are on entirely different wavelengths. Consider talking to someone in your human resources department, apply for a transfer to another position in your company or leave for greener pastures. When you feel your boss has removed all the pride and pleasure you get from your work, it’s time to leave.


This was first published in the May 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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