Most of my business consulting work is directly with the business owner, but when I'm working with a client who is having people problems, what I tend to find is that their "poorly performing team" is often a symptom of lousy leadership. The team underperforms because they're trying to be productive under the tyranny of a really terrible boss.
Not sure what a bad boss is? Read 8 Types of Terrible Bosses.
Important Note: Most Bad Bosses Don't Realize How Terrible They Are
Have you ever had one of those moments where you realize you've been doing something completely wrong? It might be something you've been doing wrong your entire life. It could be something simple, like cutting a mango. Or something that's been passed down, like not following the printed rules of Monopoly. Or it could be something more consequential, like pronouncing someone's name wrong.
Before you became aware that you've been 'doing it wrong', you live in this blissful state of unconscious incompetence. At this point, you don't even realize that you're doing it wrong. This is a blissful stage where you could continue to do the same thing for eternity because there appears to be no reason not to.
If you've had that "What?! I didn't realize I was doing it wrong!" feeling you are already familiar with the next stage of competency and the concept of conscious incompetence. At this stage, you're aware of the error and can now see a "better way".
Source: Athlete Assessments
If your error was something low-stakes, like cutting fruit or playing board games, it isn't a big deal. But if it's something bigger like learning that you've been pronouncing your friend's partner's name wrong for an extended period of time, it sucks! You feel like an idiot and you waiver between questioning if you're the only one that does it this way (all alone in your suckiness) and wondering why no one ever pointed it out before -- were they all talking about it behind your back? These kinds of errors can really kick your ego down a few notches.
If your boss could be a leading contender for the Bad Boss of the Year Award, the likelihood is that he/she is in that blissful stage of unconscious incompetence – totally unaware of their suck. Ironically, they might even think that they're a great boss and telling them otherwise is either going to be met with direct refusal to accept your feedback or a complete shock to their ego. As an employee, neither of these outcomes are favourable for you.
If you have an adequate relationship with your boss – and your boss is a reasonable person – you can start a conversation to talk openly about how they can improve their leadership skills. I recommend checking out Radical Candor and Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most; these are two great books that can help you as you try to 'coach up' within your organization.
Your Boss Likely Doesn't Realize that They Make You Feel Bad
Despite your feelings towards your boss, the likelihood is that he or she probably has a good intention. Even if that intention is directed in the worst possible way! If you're not ready to have a radically candid conversation with your boss about their poor leadership skills, here are some suggestions on how you can address the shame culture in your workplace and, bit by bit, do what you can to gently nudge your boss into a state of self awareness. As a result, you'll help to improve the overall culture and work environment for everyone.
How to Deal with Difficult Bosses
Your ability to improve your relationship with your boss will vary greatly depending on your organizational culture and where you fit into it. Ultimately, the only thing you have autonomy of is your own thinking and behaviour. Your boss is the only person who can change his/her behaviour. If you have an intolerant boss who is unlikely to change, you may want to polish your resume and find a better boss elsewhere.
Outbursts & Yelling
How to deal with a boss who can't regulate their emotions:
Outbursts like angry yelling show that the person has a hard time regulating their emotions. If you have a boss who has outbursts you can probably identify the 'warning signs' that they're going to blow: pacing, scratching their head, repetitive speech patterns, mini-rants, etc. You'll know the ones that are specific to your boss. If you can notice the signts that they're building up to an outburst, try to distract and diffuse. See if they want to go grab a coffee – leaving the place where they were upset and getting in some physical movement can both help to reduce the pressure. Change the subject if you can, and then come back to the topic at hand when they've cooled down and can approach it rationally.
If you can't diffuse or deflect and an outburst happens try to stop it by asking that this conversation be continued privately. If you can't diffuse the situation, try not to escalate it. Hold your ground until it's done and then speak to your boss privately about it. Make it clear that, no matter how frustrated they may be, that behaviour is not OK.
If you can move past the humiliation of the outburst seek to identify the root cause of the frustration. What was the pain point that caused this trigger and how can it reasonably be resolved? Note: Bad bosses don't provide the opportunity for staff to respond to accusations and comments which makes it extra hard to deal with this type of behaviour.
Be wary with outburst bosses. This behaviour can often come along with blame shifting, bullying and harassment. This is not a healthy environment to work in and if you're unable to influence positive change, I'd encourage you to seek employment elsewhere.
If your boss is prone to gossip, be mindful of what you share with them. Keep things you don't want shared to yourself and when your boss tries to share other people's business with you, mention that you're uncomfortable with the conversation and excuse yourself from it.
Gossipy bosses create gossipy offices which make everyone, rightfully, paranoid. If you can identify other gossip in the office you may be able to argue (without calling out your boss) that your office should have a 'No Gossip Policy'. Going through the exercise of what counts as gossip and documenting it as a not-OK behaviour can help your boss realize that their own behaviour may be crossing a line. If they don't have that epiphany during the process you can use the new 'No Gossip Policy' and (politely and privately) mention to them that they may be crossing it when you notice that they're getting gossipy again.
Harassment & Discrimination
Sexual and physical harassment are still very common in the workplace. Sadly, if your boss thinks that it's OK to harass you, threaten you, hit on you or cross lines that make you feel unsafe, you may want to consider finding a new place to work sooner rather than later. A candid conversation about boundaries may not be enough for such a bullish boss.
People who are guilty of harassment and discrimination don't always know or understand that they're in the wrong. If you can, address this issue directly in a way that shows them that their behaviour is not OK without directly calling them out for it. Sharing a story that they can relate to or shifting the view from what they did wrong to how the person on the receiving end may have understood the interaction can be helpful to help your boss improve their self awareness. You can also shift the conversation to focus on the business's bottom line (diversity is good for business) or their own liability (lawsuits are bad for business).
If you are dealing with discrimination and have an HR department, you should go to HR who will hopefully deal with the issue better than your boss is.
Performance Feedback Tips
Favouritism & Comparisons
It's easiest to address this when you're not part of the competitive comparison. Identifying specific instances where favouritism played out and addressing it as a structural issue is a solid way to bring these differences to light without scapegoating the person who is being favoured. If you have defined processes in place for performance evaluations, giving feedback, work assignments, and expectations for working hours and holidays, then you'll be able to specifically identify where people are being treated unequally and you can work to reduce the systemic favouritism that can play out in the office.
If your work is the work that is constantly and unfairly getting ripped apart, try not to tie your own self-worth into this bad boss's shortcomings at giving feedback. Always remember: their perception of your work does not equate to your worth as a person.
Are you being held accountable for things you didn't know you were accountable for? Is it now your fault that something went wrong?
Blaming is hard to deal with because at some point, when you have a boss who blames you for things that are going wrong, you will question the role that you play in it and will start to believe that these things really are your fault. Blame shifters rarely have any justification for why they lash out and accuse others so for that reason it's best to shut them down quickly by staying calm and requesting proof of their claims. Ask pointed questions about what they did and didn't do. If you are not the one who the blame is being shifted on to, bring in the person who is so that you can clear up any misunderstanding about the situation.
How to cope with a perfectionist boss
Ask questions, get examples, and get into the weeds. It's going to take a lot of time (that they might not be happy to give) but it will make them more clearly articulate what they are looking for so that you can both be on the same page. This also gives you the opportunity to suggest "what about like this..." so you can get your ideas in and approved early in the process instead of them being a 'surprise' to your boss who wasn't expecting them in the final product. Book time for collaboration and have open conversations throughout the process.
If you have trouble getting your boss to engage with you (an absentee or unapproachable boss), share your progress early and regularly so you can give lots of opportunity for feedback. A perfectionist boss might say "it's your project, go do it" but when they see what you're working on they will be compelled to comment on it.
Dealing with a Drama Queen (or King)
Some people THRIVE from drama and having an adversary. When your boss finds their next big scandal, a new way they were wronged, or some new juicy beef with someone, no matter how interesting it may be, try to unengage yourself. Don't fan the flames of the drama. Often, with a drama-seeking person, they're creating their own narrative around things that is likely not true. One way to diffuse the drama is to get your boss to challenge their own thinking. Questions like "do you think there is another explanation for this?" or "have you asked this person why they're doing this thing that seems suspicious?" can help to unravel the story that they're weaving themselves.
Drama Kings (and Queens) are A+ at playing the Blame Game (see above 👆).
See Something, Say Something
Your place of work should not be a place of shame and humiliation. If you see someone being mistreated in your organization, I encourage you to speak up. It may well be that people are suffering in silence because others are afraid or unwilling to speak up. If your bad boss is truly unaware that they're behaving poorly, this could be their 'a-ha!' moment to make a change and to start working on their leadership skills.
Getting Good at Something Takes Practice
Most people, when they come to understand that they really suck at something, either try to improve their skills or abandon doing it entirely and delegate the job to someone else. Chances are your boss has had a lot of practice as doing their job poorly and it's going to take time and a conscious effort for them to shift their behaviours.
Many entrepreneurs will delegate out accounting, sales, admin, HR and even the jobs they used to love doing to someone else. But when it comes to delegating the management of their company they're less likely to hand over the reigns. This is especially true when it means that they have to hire someone with experience in this role ($$$) or if it leaves them without a 'real' role in the company anymore. Encouraging your boss to step down from the day-to-day management of the company or its people might be a hard sell for you as part of the organization.
The Benefits of a Business Coach
Working with a business coach can help you have these hard conversations with your leadership team and to identify key areas on your organization that need to change -- including toxic culture issues.