The new chief executive at a mid-size Atlanta technology company was technically brilliant but totally lacking in management skills. He turned everyone off, including customers. Morale started plunging, and employees began to grumble. Then they became emboldened, and they reached out to members of the company’s board, laying out how the CEO dampened motivation, wrought havoc with teamwork, and drove customers away. It took a long time, some four years, but the board finally let the CEO go.
Countless workers fantasize about getting their boss fired, but few succeed. I talked to five career coaches, a corporate consultant, a lawyer, and a management professor about how disgruntled workers might oust their superiors, and although I gathered a handful of success stories, all of the sources agree: Think many times over before you try it, because you will likely fail.
“Organizations are power hierarchies, and your boss is automatically one level up from you,” says Marie McIntyre, an Atlanta career coach and author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics." “All of these situations come down to leverage,” she adds. “If you declare war on your boss, 90 percent of the time you’re going to lose, because your boss has more leverage than you do.”
That said, my sources came up with several stories about employees who succeeded against the odds. I’ll share them here and draw some lessons, in case you feel compelled to take on the challenge.
McIntyre offers the tale of that technology CEO’s ouster. The lesson from that story: Persistence and patience can pay off, but it may take years.
McIntyre also describes a near-miss that’s worth relating. A hard-driving salesman was promoted to serve as a district manager for the top sales group at his pharmaceutical company. He tackled the job by riding along with team members on sales calls and critiquing their performance. “He really ticked people off,” recalls McIntyre.
The aggravated employees started calling the new boss’ boss to complain. But they didn’t just say they were unhappy. They spelled out how he was interfering with their work. The district manager was on the verge of getting fired, says McIntyre, when the company brought her in to consult. The group’s approach was effective, she says, because taken together, each of the six employees’ strong track records gave them leverage. They also made a convincing business case: The manager was driving down sales. McIntyre says that after she led several sessions with the manager and the team together, he changed his style and saved his job.
Sarah Stamboulie, a New York career coach, tells a story about a major bank with its headquarters in New York City and a human resources office in New Jersey that ran by its own rules. The main office wanted the New Jersey branch to get in line with corporate practices, but its head preferred to do things his own way. The department’s number two started ingratiating herself with her superiors in the main office and modified her own work to be in line with the central office. When the company had to cut costs, it laid off the head of the division and kept that number two, who had proved she could do a better job at running the department. “The lesson is to look for alliances where your boss is weak,” Stamboulie says.
Two of my sources offer tales from academia. Marcie Schorr Hirsch, of Hirsch/Hills Consulting in Newton Centre, Mass., tells of a woman who came in as the new director of a university office with 30 employees. She was following in the footsteps of a much-loved boss and quickly developed a reputation as a very difficult manager. People in the department soon started quitting. Four left, and others became disgruntled and wrote letters to senior officers at the university. Prodded by the university, the boss wound up taking a leave and then not returning to her job. As in the case of McIntyre’s story about the sales manager, there was strength in numbers. “It takes a village,” Hirsch says.
Gary Namie, a Seattle corporate consultant, psychologist and author of "The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels and Snakes from Killing Your Organization," recounts the story of a tenured math and statistics professor at a junior college who felt he was being “persecuted” by a new dean, despite having job security and being well-liked by students. The professor collected evidence carefully, documented the dean’s attacks on him and others in his 15-member department, and approached the college’s chancellor and members of its board. Three of the professor’s colleagues had felt so berated by the new department head that they had had emotional breakdowns and sought psychiatric help, according to Namie. The professor prepared a report that laid out the extent to which the department head was costing the college money. One of the colleagues had filed a harassment suit, and students were becoming discouraged. The college let the department head go. The lesson here also echoes that of McIntyre’s sales manager story. Says Namie: Keep your emotions in check, and lay out a case that details how the boss is costing the institution money.
Despite these tales, the consultants, coaches and lawyer all agree: “Rather than get your boss fired, I would use my energies to find a new job,” advises New York City career coach Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. Adds Atlanta career coach McIntyre, “If you can’t think of a business case against your boss, then you probably just have a personality case, and you’d better get over it.”
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© 2012 Forbes.com