Making the best of a bad boss. Coping strategies?
November 23, 2014 1:20 PM   Subscribe

What strategies have you used to cope with a bad boss/supervisor?

There are lots of asks about specific bosses and work situations, but I'm looking for advice and ideas for how to handle a 'bad boss' of the general incompetent, very un-self aware (so unlikely to get much better), and self centered variety. General run of the mill bad, not DTMFJob variety of mean spirited, vicious, crazy or abusive.

What are your strategies for coping, handling, managing up, covering your own ass, letting other colleagues know you aren't the incompetent fool that decided to do something that way without calling your boss an incompetent fool, keeping them as happy when possible, focusing on the positive of a workplace, etc. etc. I did find this ask about tips for leaving that work stress at work so I think that's been addressed.

Examples of what I've come up with so far (which isn't much):
  • Trying to have as many decisions as possible recorded in email. This is mostly a CYA tactic, so I have documentation if a poor decision is made about my area of specialization against my advice. But I'm not sure how to ask for this when decisions are made in an in person meeting, without making it obvious why I'm doing it...
  • Having a couple of stock phrases for replying to those random, thinking aloud, bad ideas: BB: "I've been thinking, what if we did twice the work for half the result?" Me: "That's something interesting to think about." "Interesting idea." "I hadn't thought of that." [change the subject pronto, and hope they forget this brilliant inspirational idea]
  • come up with some nice ways to say "OMG that's a terrible idea!", like maybe "we could but it would significantly impact our implementation timeline", or...
posted by pennypiper to Work & Money (5 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I just got out of one of these situations. What I did was to find ways not to interact with said supervisor, or to make it so that his input wasn't necessary. YMMV.

Have you checked out the Ask A Manager blog? She's got some interesting bits and the commenters there are pretty savvy with situations like this.
posted by checkitnice at 1:51 PM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of my bosses was a bully, and I dealt with her by insisting that all orders come in writing, and by complying with her orders to the letter.
posted by starbreaker at 2:00 PM on November 23, 2014

Getting things in writing is excellent. If decisions are made in a meeting, make the offer at the end of the meeting to send around an note to everyone with the meeting outcomes "so we're all on the same page and know who's doing what" - this is your chance to put things in writing and it's just good project management, no matter how great or not your boss is.

Take control of conversations with them. For example, if you have a regular meeting with them, don't wait for your boss to start the conversation - say something like "Last week we agreed that I'd get through XXX and YYY this week, so I'd like to give you an update on those, and also I want to cover off ZZZ and talk about next steps on that".

My favourite phrase for bad ideas is "let's work that through" followed by some leading questions to get them to unpack the idea and reveal it to be the appalling idea that it is.

As for letting other colleagues know you aren't the incompetent fool that decided to do something that way without calling your boss an incompetent fool, there's nothing wrong with saying "Well, this wouldn't be my preferred approach, but that's the way we're doing it". People around you will also have noticed you have a bad boss, and they'll know this is code for "yup, it's a rotten idea but I have to let the boss make these calls".

Finally, choose what you'll die in a ditch over. Have a think about what the really big things are that you just won't tolerate a bad call on, and do some preparation about how you'll deal with those situations if they arise.
posted by girlgenius at 2:13 PM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had a few strategies that helped me deal.

Getting out of the office at lunch for a daily 30 minute walk 'for exercise' was a big bonus to my mental health and just dealing with the stress of the day.

I rearranged the office geometry so that there was less line-of sight between us - that helped lessen constant interruptions and distractions.

I learned to let/make him take ownership of his decisions when possible - telling people who were arguing with me something that I didn't have the power to change it, they would have to take it up with him directly, etc.

I literally said to someone who was upset about a boss not returning his calls 'I'm sorry, sir, I don't have control over his actions'.
posted by bq at 2:29 PM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Good advice above. Would just note that you don't have to make an offer at the end of the meeting to write up the notes from the meeting. I never did. I would just do it, send copies to everyone who had been at the meeting, and ask folks to note corrections needed if I had missed anything.

My coworkers found the notes super helpful and there was no pretending that decisions made in any given meeting had never happened.

This behaviour is excellent for CYA and also for being seen as a responsible professional.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:38 PM on November 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

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