We wish we could mandate that all bosses go to boss school. Or that the ones who did get management training absorbed everything they were taught.
Fact is, there are a lot of bad bosses running amok out there, and most don’t even know that they’re the bane of your existence.
But the good news is—if you’re stuck under the thumb of a less-than-stellar superior—there are strategies for managing her particular strain of craziness. (For more on the importance of managing up, click here.)
For expert advice, we spoke to Nicole Williams, LinkedIn’s connection director and author of “Girl on Top: Your Guide to Turning Dating Rules into Career Success,” and Leigh Steere, cofounder of Managing People Better, LLC, a research endeavor that studies differences in management styles.
Here are nine signs your superior may not be, well, superior—and what do about it.
1. She’s Insulting
Feedback is a necessary food group in the office place. A good boss will explain why you didn’t meet expectations, as well as the changes she’d like to see next time. But then there’s the other breed: The manager who puts down your work … without supplying constructive criticism. Or worse. We’ve all been subjected to “yellers” in our time.
How to Manage Her: If she’s not forthcoming about why she’s not happy with you, you can take steps to prevent being berated. When you get an assignment, ask: “So what I’m hearing you want me to do is …?” and be sure you’re clear on the instructions before you start. If she still lights into you and you don’t know what you did to deserve it, take a deep breath and ask. You might want to wait until her tirade is over and her mood improves, but a well-timed, “I’d like to understand where I fell short, so it doesn’t happen again. Can you explain what you’d like me to do differently next time?” can work wonders.
2. She Fails to Make You Feel Appreciated
Behind most good bosses is a good support team. Good superiors recognize that they’d be beyond stuck if their underlings abandoned them. Bad ones have a bad habit of starving their subordinates of praise.
How to Manage Her: It’s never fun to fish for compliments, but asking for feedback is a necessary evil in this case. Try: “I’d really like to help make your job easier. Can you tell me how I’m doing that well—and how I could do it better?” And, never underestimate the power of complimenting her. We’re not saying like will always beget like, but propping her up may help her feel more confident—probably a key reason she’s not comfortable praising you in the first place.
3. She Takes Credit for Other People’s Accomplishments
Sadly, petty thieves do rise through the ranks. A good boss knows her success dovetails with making employees feel appreciated. A bad boss fails to give you recognition for what you’ve accomplished—or worse, claims your accomplishments as her own.
How to Manage Her: This is a sticky issue. Confronting her petty theft directly likely won’t get you the results you want. If you think she’d be receptive, you could try framing the conversation in a non-accusatory way: “I’m really aiming to get promoted this year, so I would love if you could help me make others aware of my accomplishments—like that account I just landed.” Also, be sure to put your feats in writing. If there’s a way to claim credit for a work coup you orchestrated, let the rest of the team know before she has a chance to steal your thunder.
4. She’s Disorganized
It’s a catch-22 for employees who have to nag managers about overdue projects: They don’t want to point out a superior’s oversight, but they also don’t want to get blamed if anything falls through the cracks. A good manager is one who is organized enough to help you prioritize your tasks. A bad one, of course, is the type who asks you if you could please print that email for her … for the third time.
How to Manage Her: Part of the trick is figuring out what makes her tick. Is she an email person—or is her inbox a bottomless abyss? Would she respond better to repeated Post-Its? While it might be diffict to psychoanalyze your boss, success in the workplace often depends on it. Also, don’t underestimate all the demands on her time. One way to make sure your needs are met is to request a weekly one-on-one meeting, when you can rattle off the items on your punch list, get answers—and look proactive.
5. She Makes Everything a Fire Drill
A good boss helps tamp down drama, not create it. And the effect of a manager who loves assigning stuff due “yesterday” is a staff that can no longer tell what’s truly urgent—and will act as such.
How to Manage Her: If you can get one step ahead of her tizzies, you’ll go far. That means understanding her triggers. Maybe she always freaks at the end of the month when earnings are posted, or before a weekly meeting with her demanding manager. Ask her to help you rank the priorities of what she needs from you each week … and get it in email. Then you’ll at least have an explanation of why you did what you did the next time she flies into a four-alarm tantrum.
6. She’s a Micromanager
A good manager helps you build your skills by challenging you to do more than you thought you could. But not everyone is cut from that cloth: If you can’t send a single email without her proofreading it, you may be under the thumb of an insecure superior, or a control freak.
How to Manage Her: While you might be tempted to shut down out of sheer frustration, the key here is to communicate more than you think you need to until you earn her trust. For some reason, much like a wild animal, she’s feeling skittish. So, for the time being, don’t make any surprise moves, and tell her exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Share updates. Give progress reports. And, make her feel like a trusted advisor by asking for her input and advice. Then, eventually, you can say: “I hope I’ve proven to you that I’m capable of handling this. I’d love to take on more responsibility. Is there anything else you need to see from me for that to happen?”
7. She’s Unapproachable
The most effective workplaces thrive on openness, but that doesn’t mean some managers don’t choose tyranny instead. The problem is, when communication shuts down, more problems are likely to arise—and underlings will be scared to ask for help in solving them.
How to Manage Her: This is a tough one, because unless you’ve done something to deserve her derision, the problem may be hers and hers alone. But you shouldn’t have to deal with a boss who is mean, distant or even abusive. Try to understand where the behavior is coming from, and always be polite, clear, honest and direct with her. If the situation doesn’t improve, this might be a case in which you consult another manager, or HR, on how best to proceed.
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8. She’s Too Polite
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s also possible for a boss to be too nice. The problem with that is that your bonus and review depend on what she thinks, so any superior who holds back her true thoughts isn’t doing you any favors.
How to Manage Her: With a boss like this, you may have to actually beg for bad feedback. If she’s always saying you do a great job, tell her that you think you would do even better if she could pinpoint a few areas where you could improve. Explain that you love having her as a manager, but you also want your career to advance, and she could help you by showing you the areas in which you can grow.
9. She Plays Favorites
In a perfect world, all managers would love all of their direct reports equally. Sadly, it’s human nature to click with some people more than others, and it can become a problem when a superior favors one employee with more responsibility (or raises) based on preference, not performance.
How to Manage Her: No, it’s not fair, but this is one time when it might be best to ignore the problem. And that’s because complaining will be unlikely to change your superior’s mind. Resist the temptation to whine to co-workers, gossip about your boss’s office pet or keep an endless tally of what she got that you didn’t. Instead, keep a close eye on your own progress. Schedule time with your boss to map out your career goals, figure out what behavior she admires in that other person (if it’s job-related), and be sure to exceed your goals. In the end, that’s your best shot at coming out ahead.