Extra Edition / Business Management

What If Your Boss Really Is a Jerk?

November 8, 2010
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Bruce Tulgan

[Editor’s Note: This article is based on the book It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (Wiley/Jossey Bass, 2010) by Bruce Tulgan]

Some bosses really are jerks.

But if you think that your boss is a jerk, the first question you should ask yourself is this: Is it really the boss or is it you? Have you been allowing yourself to be under-managed by this boss? Or have you been engaging in a regular one-on-one dialogue about your work? Have you been working with the boss to make sure that his or her expectations for your performance are spelled out clearly, every step of the way? Have you been helping him or her monitor, measure, and document your performance on an ongoing basis?

If your answer to any of those questions is “no,” then that might be the reason that you have not been getting the guidance, direction, feedback, and recognition you need to succeed in this relationship.

Without regular daily or weekly management conversations, you and this boss have no natural venue in which to discuss how your work is going. In fact, you probably talk with this boss only when something is going wrong and the two of you realize that you absolutely must talk about the work. No wonder the relationship is not going well! No wonder you think this boss is a jerk!

You need to start doing the difficult, mundane work of boss-managing for a while before you know for sure if your boss really is a jerk.

If, after you’ve done the hard work of boss-managing, you are convinced that your boss really is a jerk, you might need to start preparing to jump ship. But what if you are not in a position to take that drastic step, or you need to stall for time in order to get yourself into that position? Or if the upsides of the job are so great that you want to find a way to mitigate your boss’s jerkiness so that you don’t have to quit? Is there anything you can do to make things better?

Consider the seven most common jerk-boss scenarios:

Jerk Boss Scenario #1. The boss lets small problems slide, but then comes down like a ton of bricks when one of those small problems gets out of control and causes real damage and cost.

What can you do to help your boss avoid this jerk boss scenario?

Constantly search for small problems to solve and small improvements to make. Make problem-solving a regular part of your ongoing dialogue with this boss. Before you start a task/responsibility or project, keep asking your boss, “What is wrong here? What could go wrong? What do we need to make sure doesn’t go wrong?” After completing a task/responsibility or project, keep asking your boss, “What is one thing I could have done better? What is one thing I could do better right now? What is one thing I could do better next time?”

Jerk Boss Scenario #2. The boss imposes his obsessive compulsive preferences on you even though there is no clear business reason.

What can you do?

Always work from a project plan with this boss, including a clear schedule of deliverables, all the specifications for each deliverable, and a step-by-step list of concrete actions. Before digging into any significant project with this boss, talk through in detail any applicable rules, regulations, and standard operating procedures. Whenever this boss insists on giving you idiosyncratic, personally chosen preferences, talk through in detail exactly how the idiosyncratic preferences deviate from the plan, the rules, the regulations, or the standard operating procedures. If there is no deviation, then of course these are not idiosyncratic preferences.

Jerk Boss Scenario #3. Your boss starts treating you like a beck-and-call-assistant.

What can you do?

Use each solo interaction with this boss to get as many to-do items as possible up front all at once. That means you need to keep a pad of paper and a pen (or an electronic tool) handy at all times. Every time your boss gives you an assignment, try to keep the conversation going by asking, “OK. I’ve got that. Then what? Then what? Then what?”

Jerk Boss Scenario #4. The boss pretends things are up to you when they are not.

What can you do?

Every step of the way, force your boss to spell out every requirement and every expectation for every task, responsibility, and project. Ask for rules, regulations, established best practices, and standard operating procedures. Ask for checklists, examples, and work samples. Whether or not these tools are available, always make your own plan, your own to-do list, and your own checklist, in writing, and run it by the boss before starting the work.

Jerk Boss Scenario #5. The boss isn’t keeping track of what’s going on, but makes big decisions that affect everyone.

What can you do?

Keep your boss informed every step of the way of exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, how, where, and when.

Jerk Boss Scenario #6. The boss soft-pedals his authority until something goes terribly wrong and then becomes authoritarian when there is a strong disagreement.

What can you do?

Help the boss build authentic rapport with you by talking genuinely about the work you have in common. Every time your boss tries to shoot the breeze, talk about the work. Ask for guidance, direction, and support. Talk about your goals and deadlines, your projects and plans; talk about your performance and what you can improve; talk about your training needs and work conditions.

Jerk Boss Scenario #7. The boss is intimidating, mean, or abusive.

What can you do?

This is the boss’s psychological problem, not yours. Stay professional. Bite your tongue. Never raise your voice. Get your marching orders and go about your business. And keep detailed notes about what the boss did and said. If it is an ongoing problem, you might have to report the behavior to senior management or Human Resources. But it’s best to avoid this if you can.

Quitting your job is, of course, the ultimate solution for getting away from a jerk boss. But maybe you can keep your job and get rid of the jerk instead by going over the boss’s head or to an independent third party. There are, in fact, some good reasons to consider taking the problem to your boss’s boss or to someone in HR.

• If the boss is a hopeless jerk, the costs to the organization may be much greater than anybody realizes. You owe it to the organization to make sure someone higher up knows about what’s going on.

• This boss might be out there bad-mouthing you all over the organization. You need to let someone know that the relationship didn’t fail because of you.

• If you want any legal recourse in the future, you will be much better off if you have followed your employer’s formal grievance process. Step one will be to go to your boss’s boss or HR.

Of course, going over your boss’s head or to HR with a complaint is an unpleasant, scary process. My very strong advice is, don’t do it lightly. Make sure you have done everything within your own power to deal with the situation first, because once you go there, you won’t be able to come back. You don’t want to seem like a litigious employee, a complainer, or a troublemaker. You need to make it obvious that it wasn’t you, but rather the boss who made all the trouble.

Publication date: 11/08/2010

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