How to Deal with a Career Limiting Boss
Someone recently asked me, “How do you identify and deal with a career limiting boss, you know, a bad boss?”
It made me think back on my own career and realize just how hard it is to be a good boss and how easy it is to be a bad boss without even realizing it sometimes. Frankly, I've been that bad boss at various points in my career without intending to.
Thinking back over this 24 years of experience, and now as I coach people, I have come to identify the following seven types of career limiting or bad bosses. Then we'll talk about four strategies for dealing with the situation.
7 Kinds of Bad Bosses
The first kind of bad boss is one that is ineffective. This is somebody who is indecisive or is just not able to get things done. It also could be somebody who is just too nice and people walk all over them.
They splash around the pool but don’t get to the other side, and this can make the entire team seem less capable and limit everyone's opportunities to shine.
The Time Waster
The second kind of bad boss is one who wastes your time, which is especially upsetting because time is the only thing we can't get back.
This might be somebody who is disorganized and has you sitting around for most of the day only to delegate a rush project at 5pm on a Friday. Or they may be so insecure and perfectionist that they make people do lots of work that never gets used. I did that and got called out for it.
The third kind of bad boss is one that doesn't give you autonomy. They want things done their way. They micromanage. (Yes, I did that too!) Or this kind of boss can value face time more than results, and, in doing that, they're controlling your time.
The fourth kind of bad boss is one that is simply a jerk. They're just mean to people. They might be a drill sergeant and bark at you all the time in front of everybody else, or they like to rule by fear.
They might even pit people against each other within the same team. That can be limiting because it's hard to do your best work in a state of fear.
The fifth kind of bad boss is one that undermines you. They might actually take your ideas and label them as their own without giving you any credit. They might talk badly about you behind your back.
They might be gatekeepers: people that want to have all the conversations with senior people and with clients themselves, and not give people junior to them an opportunity. And that can be really career limiting.
The sixth kind of bad boss is one who is unpredictable.
At least with the other five types, since they're consistent you can generally find a strategy to handle the situation. But if your boss is unpredictable, you never know whether you're going to get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. That can be really disconcerting. And it makes it harder to come up with an effective counter strategy.
The Checked Out
The seventh kind of bad boss is one who has checked out. They are no longer interested in advancing their own careers and they're certainly not interested in advancing yours. That to me is one of the worst kinds.
I've been most, if not all, of the other six, at various points and usually not on purpose. But I have never been this seventh kind, the checked out kind, and I find it really soul destroying to work for someone like that.
4 Strategies for Dealing with a Career Limiting Boss
So, if you're dealing with a career limiting boss, let's talk about four strategies you can employ.
First, you can muddle through. Most people do this, and there's nothing wrong with muddling through.
Sometimes, your boss may even leave while you're muddling through. This makes it key that you continue to conduct yourself in a way that you can be proud of and do an excellent job no matter what your boss is like. That way, you're in good shape no matter what happens with your boss.
However, the risk of this strategy is that you are likely to feel more and more of this negative energy from having to deal with the problem. And that is likely to start crushing you down. If you leave it long enough, the body language that you have is going to change and it's going to just feel so disempowering.
So be careful with the muddle through approach, although it's a perfectly valid one.
Help Them Change
The second strategy is you can help your boss change. However, it's rare to find a boss who wants to change and wants you to help them change.
If you have a boss who's open to your input and advice, then go for it and just be really generous with them. Use positive words only. Look forward, what Marshall Goldsmith calls “feed forward”: tell them what they can do going forward to be even better. Don't talk about what they did in the past. For example, “If you can do XYZ, then it would make the team even more productive,” or something similar.
In my own case, it was the official yearend feedback from my juniors (on an anonymous basis) that helped me realize that I was wasting the company's resources and had to change. My own insecurities and perfectionism were wasting my team's time and energy with unnecessary analysis.
And my fear of getting things wrong meant I put off making decisions to the last minute, and only after a good dose of analysis paralysis plus changing my mind several times. But it took this feedback for me to recognize what I was doing. I definitely wanted to be a good boss, and just needed to have my blind spots pointed out before I could improve.
For this strategy to work, you have to figure out if your boss is fundamentally a bad person, or a basically decent person exhibiting bad boss behaviors. When it's the behavior and not the person, you have a chance to help them change. But tread carefully, and come from a place of positive support rather than criticism.
Change Your Approach
The third strategy is to change your own approach and mindset. This is probably the most empowering and positive strategy, because you can control what you do and don't do, and what you say and don't say. You can't change others, but you can change yourself. And even that can be hard.
Go out and ask mentors for advice because they'll know your organization or the situation better. Maybe they've been through exactly what you've been through before.
Reframe the way you think about your work. Challenge yourself to take responsibility by asking another Marshall Goldsmith question, which is “Did I do my best today to be a better member of the team? Did I do my best today to be happy at work? Did I do my best to … ?” And then fill in the blank of who you want to be at work, and how you want to reframe your situation.
Then also go out there and build your network. Build your network outside of your group and outside of your reporting line. That's really going to pay dividends in terms of the breadth of your experience, the breadth of people you can learn from, and also the set of opportunities set that you can bring to the work itself. And it could possibly lead to finding some more joyful work going forward, which brings us to the fourth strategy.
Leave Your Boss
Of course, you can always leave. In fact, the only sure way to fire a bad boss is to quit. However, you only want to do this when you've exhausted all other avenues and feel good and ready to go. But this is always an option open to you.
And leaving your boss doesn't necessarily mean leaving your organization. There could be other groups and regions with great opportunities for your career growth. That's where it's helpful to be doing a great job, despite your boss. Excellence always attract opportunities, so don't let your boss situation interfere with your efforts and attitude if you can help it.
If and when you do leave, don't burn your bridges. You never know when you may have the chance to come back to a new and improved situation. So, if you do choose to leave, do it in a way that reflects who you are as a person.
What's worked for you?
Now I'd love to hear what you think about these bad boss categories and how you found it most effective to deal with any bad bosses that you may have had, or seen others deal with.
Leave me a comment below. I'd love to hear from you and I'll bet it will really help other people too.
I enjoyed the article. It triggered three primary thoughts:
1. All points in the article are valid and have relevance depending on the situation.
2. Everyone’s definition of a good boss is a little different in many cases because individual needs are different. Among other things, a good boss has the ability to adapt to the employee’s needs, and be situationally aware of all other relevant factors. Therefore, as a simplistic example, a new employee might need lots of attention to get structured for success, while an experienced one may just need to understand the end goal and be left alone to drive results. Many bosses have one primary mode. It is difficult for them to change, just as you may find it difficult to change the behaviors of a significant other (not that it is recommended). May’s example of responding to feedback is admirable, but not an everyday behavior for many bosses.
3. A company culture often drives the behaviors expected of a “successful” boss. Therefore, it is not unusual to have many bosses and employees with similar behavioral characteristics and needs. Driving cultural change within an organization is one of the most difficult things to accomplish, whether you are the CEO or elsewhere in the organization.
Thank you for writing on this topic! In my experience, this is has been so true –> ” it’s rare to find a boss who wants to change and wants you to help to help them change” . Unless your employer is a big/ stable company with great resources, your professional development is not on your boss’ priority list. The best one can do is like May said, go network and learn new skills on your own, don’t wait on your boss to create opportunities for you.
I agree, Jenny. Don’t wait. Go get what you want and need. Invest in yourself!
Thank you May. This helps a bit. I know I need to leave my boss but want to leave with building networks first. This is a bad situation I’m in, the organization is also bad so I must find a different organization but same field. Network building is difficult for me since in this organization the best jobs are taken by who knows you rather than on what you know. Perhaps, I need to switch type of industry to get ahead. Not sure.
Keep reaching out and building relationships. That not only will help you get visibility on the next set of opportunities, it also may get you known by those key decision-makers where you are.
Love your post! It surely is hard for the boss to be a good one sometimes and I honestly think that “the bad or good boss is in the eye of the beholder” as pointed out by Udo.
I recently found out something about myself with my boss though. I believe i have a good boss and because of that, the last thing i want to do is to let her down. However, i am not perfect and when she points out my flaw/shortcoming, i tend to get the teary eyes because i failed her – and i am not proud of this! Although i am open to feedback and willing to change. Hence, not only we need strategies for dealing with a bad boss, we also need strategic ways (and sometimes harder) to deal with a good boss.
Perhaps a future post on ‘How to manage expectations of a good boss’ or ‘How to deal with emotions at work’ would be great! =)
Hi Pat. Thanks for sharing your experiences and for the blog post ideas. Let’s see what I can do…
So glad you loved this, Jimmy. May you be blessed with great bosses, and the commitment to being one too!
I have saved many of your blogs for future reference. This one is from two years ago, when I was one year into “The Unpredictable” and I was “Attempting to Change” her (by mentoring her through topics she had not dealt with before. By 2017, she was “The Jerk” by pitting us against each other. I attempted to “Muddle Through”. Earlier this year, she became “The Controller” so I tried to “Change My Approach”. A few months ago, she hired someone else to supervise us without giving the person any authority to make decisions. Thus, I have taken a job outside of ASU and quit my boss. As I empty my email folders, I found this and feel justified that I tried all that I could. Thanks for keeping it real, May!
Many things to ponder you have brought up. Another I am struggling with is a career that is limited by circumstance…custody of a daughter that limits my ability to work out of town or at distances. Age is another factor too, being in my middle 50s with a late start in life daughter makes change nearly impossible from my perspective. I’ve had great success earlier in life and a lot of opportunities, some of them passed in fear of failing…some that have made me who I am in my skill sets. I feel that if you keep an open mind and strive to be the best you can be, sometimes there is nothing better. We call can’t be king of the hill when circumstances limit us beyond our control at times. Perhaps I am burned out and just can’t see the forest thru the trees any more. This article though, has me thinking I am still on track trying to find a solution to my obstacles. Keeping a forward looking mentality is half of it…the doing what part, but what is the part I need to figure out.
There is another reason why you may have a career limiting boss; you are simply too productive in the position that you have, and boss would like to keep you there.
I have an excellent boss; she is effective, on top of her game. But her job is to keep the projects rolling. And that happens most effectively when those of us that have been there for a number of years keep on doing exactly what we’re doing.