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How to deal with a bad boss, according to a career coach

A 3-step guide to getting ahead, even if your boss is getting you down.
Image: Two business colleagues discussing a project
Our bosses can have a lot of influence over our career trajectory: what projects we work on, our visibility in the organization and the industry, and what we get out of a job.10'000 Hours / Getty Images

A great boss can serve multiple roles in your career and your life: mentor, friend, confidant, ally, and more. A great boss can teach you lessons you’ll benefit from the rest of your professional life and set you up for success.

But what if your boss is not that type of boss?

It helps to not think of managers as either just good or bad, explains Mary Abbajay, president of Careerstone Group, an organizational consulting and coaching service. (She’s also the author of "Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss".)

There are qualities that make someone a productive manager, like being organized, keeping things on track, and delivering on the goals of the organization. And there are qualities that make someone an effective manager of the people they’re managing, like supporting those people, valuing those people, listening to them, coaching them, and caring about their engagement and wellbeing, Abbajay tells NBC News BETTER. “They listen. They’re honest. They’re trustworthy. They not only hold their employees accountable, they support their employees when they need to.”

A boss can be lacking when it comes to any of those qualities. (Think about it. Most managers don’t get training on how to manage, Abbajay says. People often get promoted into manager roles because they have and excel at the technical skills needed for their job, not because they have good managerial skills.)

Or your boss may have all of those qualities, but not a work style that is conducive to yours.

We all have our preferences about how we work. And more likely than not — unless you work for the same manager your entire career — you’re going to have a boss over the course of your career who has different preferences from you: you may not communicate well, you may not get along, or you may not approach problems in the same way, Abbajay says. “You’re going to have a spectrum of different types of bosses.”

And there are a lot of ways those bosses can fail at being a boss.

Regardless, it’s going to make you a stronger professional (and a better manager if and when you’re in that role) if you figure out ways to adapt and work together rather than jump ship because of your differences, Abbajay says. She calls it “managing up.”

Because at the end of the day, our bosses can have a lot of influence over our career trajectory: what projects we work on, what teams we’re a part of, our visibility in the organization and the industry, and what we get out of a job, she adds. And those factors in turn affect what promotions we get and subsequent jobs.

According to a 2015 Gallup report, in the vast majority of cases (70 percent of the time) one’s relationship with his or her manager explained whether or not an employee was engaged in their current job or not (meaning they felt involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace) — which is saying a lot, since only a third of workers polled reported being engaged.

So, how exactly do you manage up when you and your boss don’t get along? When are you better off leaving?

Step 1: Figure out your manager’s style and how you can adapt

Observe how your boss works and likes to operate. What’s his or her workplace personality? How do they like to communicate? What are their priorities? What gets on their nerves?

Try to do it without judging them, Abbajay says. Just notice: Do they like frequent updates on what you’re working on? Do they prefer you email with questions or knock on their office door? Do they value speed in getting a project done?

Then notice what your preferences are. How do you like to work?

Assess the gap and what you can do to adapt to become more aligned with how your boss works. It might be a matter of shifting your work hours earlier or later; it might be a matter of taking more notes during meetings so you can report on details your manager cares about.

“It’s about understanding who they really are (not who you wish they were), understanding who you are, and then figuring out how you can be successful with that person,” Abbajay says.

Step 2: Once you’ve figured out how to adapt, try harder at it

Adapting to a work style that’s not your own isn’t easy.

Let’s say your boss is a micromanager. That boss lacks trust in you. Resisting that person or getting angry or bitter is not going to help. Instead, flood that manager with information, Abbajay says. Think frequent check-ins and status reports.

Might the projects take longer than if your boss had given you autonomy from the get-go and you didn’t have to spend time documenting updates? Maybe. Is it fair that you have to do that extra work? Probably not. But along the way you may get some helpful feedback, and it’s going to be a good lesson for you on how to work with people who are different from you, Abbajay says.

“Your whole career you’re going to have people who are difficult. The more adaptable we can be at managerial relationships with different people, the better off we’re going to be in our careers,” she explains. Her advice: “See if you can’t adapt a little bit more.”

And do look elsewhere for mentoring if your boss isn’t providing it, she adds. Look for other senior people in your organization. Look for professionals outside of your organization that you admire and reach out to them, Abbajay says. “Don’t let a boss who isn’t good at mentoring stop you from being mentored.”

Step 3: Recognize when it’s time to leave (especially if the situation is toxic)

What if you can’t adapt a little bit more? Or you’ve adapted for a while, learned your lesson, and have the wherewithal to look for another situation?

“There’s no reason you should be miserable,” Abbajay says. Can you move to a different team? Is there another job opportunity for you? How unhappy is this person and this situation making you? There’s no harm in recognizing that you tried to figure it out, but it’s just not working.

It’s also important to recognize when a boss is truly a toxic one, Abbajay adds. Ask yourself:

  • Are you spending more time worried about your boss than about actually doing and performing in your job?
  • Do you feel nervous about most interactions with your boss?
  • Do you feel demeaned or devalued by your boss?
  • Do you find yourself trying to hide from your boss or reduce interactions with him or her?
  • Do you dread going to work everyday?
  • Are you bringing your boss’s negativity and toxicity home everyday? Are you making the people you live with miserable because of it?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, it might be a sign you’re dealing with a truly toxic boss and you might be better off leaving that job or finding a new situation. “You are not going to be at your best or be successful if you are more worried about your boss than about your job,” Abbajay says.

Seth Spain, Ph.D., assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Binghamton University, and his colleagues define bad bosses as either “dysfunctional” or “dark” in their 2016 book, "Research in Occupational Stress and Well-Being."

Dysfunctional bosses usually aren’t malicious, Spain explained in a statement. “Through lack of skill, or other personality defects, they’re just not very good at their job.” (They’re the ones you try to adapt and work with.)

“Dark” bosses, though, tend to have destructive behaviors and tend to hurt others to elevate themselves, he explained. “They’re going to be mean, abusive and harassing in daily life,” according to Spain. (They’re the ones you don’t want to be working for, even if it means leaving a job.)

In addition to thwarting your professional success, toxic bosses can hurt your health and wellbeing, too.

A toxic boss can lead to emotional exhaustion, feelings of depression and chronic stress.

A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, for example, found that workers with managers who didn’t foster an open and trusting work environment (evaluated through a series of survey questions), were more likely to have multiple risk factors that would heighten cardiovascular disease risk over time, including being smokers, being obese, getting low amounts of physical activity, eating an unhealthy diet, being diabetic, having high cholesterol and having high blood pressure. (An earlier observational study concluded that employees with toxic managers were actually more likely to have a heart attack, stroke or other life-threatening cardiac condition within the 10 years of the study compared with employees who had better relationships with their bosses.)

There’s also evidence that having a toxic boss can lead to emotional exhaustion, feelings of depression and chronic stress.

So, for the sake of your professional and personal wellbeing, it’s really important to recognize when you’re dealing with a truly terrible boss and do everything in your power to get out, Abbajay says. “Find a job and a boss that’s going to help you succeed, not one that’s going to make you physically and emotionally sick.”

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