Surviving a Problematic Boss: Crafting a Partnership That Benefits You Both

By Linda Hill and Kent Lineback

What we’ve said so far may sound fine to you — in theory. But you may have a boss who presents problems.

Perhaps he’s absent, physically or psychologically. Perhaps she’s overly focused on herself and her own success. Perhaps he’s simply incompetent; he doesn’t understand the work and what’s important in it. Perhaps she’s totally results driven and doesn’t care about you or anyone else. Perhaps he’s powerless and cannot obtain the resources your team desperately needs because his web of relationships is impoverished.

Absentee bosses simply aren’t available. They’re located far away, they rarely talk to subordinates or make themselves available, or they’re consumed with other demands.

We know managers who have so many direct reports they have virtually no time for any one of them. There are various strategies for dealing with this situation.

Some focus only on their own needs

Get their attention by framing your communications around their concerns and priorities. Be prepared and efficient with the time you do have together. Keep them informed with regular, brief reports in writing or e-mail, along with short, heads-up notes when something important arises. Get to know the boss’s support staff; often you can ask a question and get a response through them. If you know the boss’s schedule, you can intercept her between meetings.

Some bosses are problematic because they focus only on their own needs. This approach may be so ingrained they’re unaware of it. But they’re insecure and view all relationships in personal terms.

Are they for me or against me?” is the first question they ask about those around them. They’re terrified of being embarrassed or failing.

To deal with such self-absorbed people, you must understand the world as they see it: a hostile place full of personal danger.

Don’t expect empathy or personal support. Give praise for genuine achievements and accomplishments. Look for ways to offer real empathy. Support clearly and vocally his good ideas. To persuade him to change course, couch your reasons in terms of either buttressing his reputation or protecting him from embarrassment.

Don’t expect praise or credit for your knowledge, good ideas, or accomplishments; almost certainly you won’t get any, and he may even take credit for them.

Be careful if he asks for your “real opinion.” It’s unlikely he wants criticism of any kind.

A different challenge: The technically incompetent boss

Though often well meaning, technically incompetent bosses present different challenges. They can be helped if they know they lack knowledge or understanding. But overconfidence and ignorance often go together. You may need to work with peers and colleagues to deal with problems here while continuing to inform and educate such a boss along the way.

A completely goal-driven boss may need reminding on occasion of organizational or people issues. She may simply overlook human costs or consequences. Raise and negotiate such issues.

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However, nothing is likely to dissuade her from the single-minded, frantic achievement of whatever goal she’s trying to achieve. You’ll probably have more success if you embrace the goal too while raising reasonable suggestions and alternatives along the way.

Of course, those are short-term ways of coping. Weigh the benefits of such a relationship against the costs.

Long-term, you’ll probably need to work out some other options. If you’re lucky, you won’t have to deal with a bad boss very often.

For all other more or less typical bosses, work hard to build a productive relationship. Initiate the kinds of discussions we’ve suggested. It’s difficult to succeed without his support, and impossible in the face of his opposition.

Take responsibility, and play an active role

Always remember that your reports face these same issues with you. Let your experience in each relationship — with your boss and with your people — guide you in the other.

Don’t make the mistake, as many managers do, of ignoring such a potentially powerful source of help and support.

Take responsibility for, and play an active role in, making it a partnership that benefits both of you. Avoid seeing yourself as a passive, powerless subordinate. Don’t assume it cannot be a positive, mutually helpful relationship until you’ve tested the possibilities on several occasions.

It’s too important — to your ability to exercise influence and thus to your journey — to merely let it be whatever it will be.

Linda A. Hill is the Walter Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She also chairs the HBS Leadership Initiative and is the author of "Becoming a Manager." Kent Lineback is a writer who spent 30 years as a manager in business and government. He is co-author of "The Monk and the Riddle."