Nightmare Bosses and How to Cope With Them: A Field Guide

We've identified four types of less than ideal bosses and how to deal with them.

January 19, 2012
from Robert Half International

If you work for an insufferable supervisor, take comfort in knowing you’ve got plenty of company. OK, perhaps it’s cold comfort, but nearly half (46%) of employees say they’ve had a bad boss, according to a survey by our firm.

In the same poll, we asked those workers a follow-up question about how they handled the situation. Here are their responses:

  • Stayed put but tried to deal with the issue: 35 percent
  • Quit my job eventually once I had another job lined up: 27 percent
  • Stayed put and suffered through the torment: 24 percent
  • Quit my job immediately without having another job lined up: 11 percent
  • No answer: three percent

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with poor managers. Following is a field guide to identifying four common types along with tailored coping tips:

The Incorrigible Meddler

Micromanagers are known for telling employees exactly how to complete tasks, even the most insignificant ones. They typically have trust issues and perfectionistic tendencies. When they’re not doling out directives in painstaking detail, these bosses are peering over your shoulder, nitpicking or repeatedly asking you for yet another project status update.

They say things like: “I walked by your desk earlier and noticed you’re missing an apostrophe in the third sentence of that report you’re working on.”

Coping tip: Gain trust by developing an attention to detail that rivals your boss’s. Provide pre-emptive updates and project self-confidence. Later, politely ask for more autonomy. Rather than bemoaning your boss’s overbearing style, frame the discussion around your strong desire to grow professionally and take on more responsibility. Once you prove yourself, request for even more independence. You may or may not receive it, but it doesn’t hurt to set the stage and then ask.

The Cryptic Communicator

The polar opposite of micromanagers, these supervisors offer little or no direction. Their lack of clarity, context and specificity leads to endless head scratching, guessing games and inefficiency. You often must finish projects in a mad dash at the last second or completely redo them because your boss failed to clearly convey key pieces of pertinent information.

They say things like: “Please send that file to what’s-his-name in the IT department sometime soon.”

Coping tip: Since you can’t learn to read minds, start thinking like a reporter and ask your manager for the who, what, when, where, why and how of each assignment. Tactfully note that the more information you receive at the outset, the more you’ll avoid costly misunderstandings. Arrange to check in periodically, and don’t be afraid to pose additional questions as they arise.

The Glory Hog

There is an “I” in “team,” according to these self-serving supervisors. They consistently take full credit for their employees’ outstanding work, but accept no responsibility when things go awry. Shameless in their attempts to impress their own superiors, these image-conscious spotlight stealers never heard a good idea they wouldn’t pass off as their own.

They say things like: “While I hate to brag, yes, I’m the one who single-handedly devised the ingenious pitch to secure that new client’s business.”

Coping tip: Understand that sometimes it’s your job to make the boss look good.But if a pattern of blatant credit-thievery emerges, start putting your accomplishments on paper, presenting ideas in writing that are e-mailed to a group or unveiling them in staff meetings. Another strategy: Ask your supervisor what steps you should take to ensure your efforts are properly recognized. You’ll make your point without directly accusing your manager of unfair or unethical behavior.

The Constant Critic

They say everyone’s a critic, but these faultfinders take the cake. They have impossible expectations, and their feedback is overly harsh and largely unconstructive. They are insensitive, condescending, dismissive, patronizing, passive-aggressive or all of the above. A favorite pastime is publicly putting you in your place, which, they’ll surely remind you, is under them.

They say things like: “You call this a P&L statement? Are you kidding me?”

Coping tip: Don’t take it personally. The world’s never had a shortage of mean bosses who enjoy flaunting their power and putting others down. But if you truly feel you’re being singled out, stand up for yourself. Calmly express your concerns about the comments directed at you. Make it known you respect your manager’s authority, but you won’t allow yourself to be mistreated. In many cases, taking a direct approach is enough to get the person to back off.

Managing a nightmare boss takes time, effort and patience. In some cases, you can minimize headaches by adapting your work style, expanding lines of communication or initiating tough conversations. In more extreme situations, turning to human resources or launching a job search might be the best course of action. But before you throw in the towel, see if there’s a way to change the relationship with your manager, or at least change how much you let his or her behavior and attitude affect you.

This article is provided courtesy of Robert Half International, parent company of Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Robert Half Management Resources. Robert Half is one of the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm placing accounting and finance professionals on a temporary, full-time and project basis. Follow Robert Half on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalf.