I work in the area of leadership development and it’s surprising to note the number of times I’m pulled aside and asked the same question in a whispery tone: “But, what do you do when your boss is a jerk?” So here are a few dos and don’ts.
DO stop focusing on yourself and start focusing on them. Find out what your boss needs and give it to them. Employees get caught up thinking that their boss’s job is to help them become effective. A good boss or leader will definitely be there to support his or her employees and coach them to succeed; however, jerks are about themselves. If you find yourself reporting to a jerk, switch your focus quickly to what you can do for them, and keep it there. Identify your boss’s most urgent and pressing needs and do whatever you can to help him or her meet them. This will put you in the most positive light and potentially turn the relationship into a productive one.
DON’T go over your boss’s head. Would you like it? Unless it’s an ethical or legal issue, or you’re prepared to leave the organization, this is risky. This approach will break trust and put you in an awkward position in the organization. Plus, what will the big boss say but “Have you talked to him or her?” And, have you? That’s the next DO.
DO try talking to your boss. This needs to be qualified because I’m not suggesting that you go in and tell your boss what you’re thinking about them. That is unlikely to work. What can work is, for example, if the jerk makes an impossible request such as “I want a full report on this issue first thing tomorrow morning”, you can reply calmly, telling him or her what you can deliver and what you cannot. For example, saying, “Yes, by tomorrow, I can give you the highlights of the issue and some ideas for how it can be solved.” When he or she responds with, “What about the full report; that’s what I need”, you respond with, “If you want a full report you can have confidence in, I could have that completed with options and recommendations in four days.” What I’ve found is that this type of response will often change the type of conversation you have with many jerks. Rather than feeling terrorized by them, you clarify what you can and cannot do. Taking control can also win their respect and confidence in you. On the other hand, some jerks are beyond this and you’ll need to think of a different approach.
DO provide feedback when asked. Many organizations make the mistake of allowing jerks to destroy work cultures. The best organizations will prevent or catch this by including upward appraisals where employees are asked to evaluate their bosses on how well they coach and develop them. Jerks are discovered and removed like bad fruit before they spoil the bunch. If your organization offers this type of system, make sure you participate. You cannot complain about a system you do not participate in or help in changing. The best systems are confidential so the data is collected from enough direct reports that it cannot be obvious which person the comments came from. The data is aggregated and fed back to the manager with a coaching session and an action plan. Without this, little change can be expected.
DO consider your own health and happiness. Eventually if you have attempted to build a better relationship with your boss by delivering quality work, have tried talking to your boss, have not broken their trust, and have provided feedback to make a change, consider the type of culture you want to work in. If your boss remains a jerk, there are many other positive environments where you can work for great leaders and live and learn productively. DO start looking!