The Bad Boss: If You Haven’t Had One, You Probably Will

boston-globe-logo1For the Boston Globe.

Almost everyone has a story. Most workers, whatever their occupations, can look back on at least one boss whose shortcomings achieved the status of legend.

Maggie Arsenault, 31, an executive assistant who lives in Everett, once worked for a classic bad boss. “He was such a bully,” she says of her former boss, the owner of a small software company. “You were constantly watched. He would tell me he didn’t like where my desk was in the office. He didn’t like the picture on the wall. I saw him go into a rage once because the pictures on the walls were tipped a little. He had me go around with a level to make sure they were straight.”

To judge from the experiences of employees like Arsenault, American companies are doing a bad job finding and training managers.

Not all bosses are deficient but many seem to have a fatal managerial flaw. Some can’t prioritize, others don’t communicate, while others are just plain mean.

“Only 53 percent of employees feel their boss does a good job of dealing with people-related problems,” says Bruce Katcher, an organizational psychologist whose company, Discovery Surveys, regularly polls about 50,000 employees at 60 companies around the country. “It’s very complex. There are many issues” affecting how workers feel about their supervisors.

Of the complaints Katcher has recorded, most relate to communication. Top employee concerns include a shortage of performance feedback, a lack of support in balancing work and family issues, and insufficient authority to make decisions.

Still, he adds, 50 to 60 percent of employees feel positive about their boss.

Danny Cox, a management consultant and the author of books including “Seize the Day: Seven Steps to Achieving the Extraordinary in an Ordinary World,” believes that in the business world, bad bosses definitely outnumber good ones.

“I was a bad boss, too,” Cox says of an early job he had as a sales manager. “I made the mistake that about 99 percent of managers make. My goal was to turn everybody that worked for me into a copy of me. If I could get them all to sell the way I had sold, I’d never be embarrassed with an unsolvable problem.”

Cox learned to change his approach when his division began to lose sales. One thing he’s learned is that most managers are as insecure as he was. He suggests employees try to see things from the boss’s perspective.

But coping with a bad boss is a job in itself. That’s what Christine Flynn of Quincy found when she took a job at a local marketing firm.

Her boss “was the only manager in our company that kept the door shut all the time. It was kind of a sign,” says Flynn, 26, now a nursing student. “She just wasn’t receptive. If we wanted to talk to her about deadlines, she just wasn’t able to do that.”

Flynn found that her sense of humor was her best coping tool for dealing with this manager. “There were times when she’d come in with a scowl on her face, like she was mad at everything, and I’d make a joke,” Flynn says. “Sometimes she would laugh at it and even say, `You’re right, I wasn’t aware’ of scowling.”

Ultimately, Flynn left the company. But specialists say it is un wise to let a problematic supervisor drive you from a position.

Even if you can afford to be out of work while you look for a new job, notes John Hoover, the author of “How to Work for an Idiot: Survive and Thrive Without Killing Your Boss,” you may find that your new boss is just as bad as the old one.

“I’ve worked with many different organizations over many years, and I’ve found that most people are just totally unprepared to be in positions of authority,” he says. The best way to deal with a bad boss, according to Hoover, is to learn to manage him or her.

“Sure, bosses are wrong most of the time,” he says. “Sure, they’re idiots. Sure, they’re clueless. But if I allow a person who’s less intelligent and talented than I am to make my life miserable, who’s the idiot?”

If you find yourself stuck with a Machiavellian supervisor, Hoover says, you need to approach the situation strategically.

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who have changed jobs three or four times to get away from bad bosses,” he says. “But do they do anything strategic or calculated in terms of positioning themselves to find a better situation? No, they play roulette. They jump from one situation into another.”

Laura Berman Fortgang, author of “Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of America’s #1 Career Coach,” divides bad bosses into two categories.

“Are they a bad boss because they’re irate and childish, or because they’re really not capable of doing the job?” she asks. “I would distinguish those two in terms of strategies to deal with them.”

When a boss is angry or bullying, Fortgang says, you should draw boundaries with him, firmly stating that you can’t do your best when you’re subjected to such treatment.

“One of my favorite sentences for clients to use with their bosses is, `To get the best from me, this is what I need,’ ” she says.

Then there’s the incompetent boss. “The best strategy is to help that boss look good. It will come back in spades to you,” Fortgang says.

Hoover also suggests studying the boss and adapting yourself to complement him or her. If he’s disorganized, be organized for him. If she’s demanding, anticipate her demands and fulfill them in advance.

Allston resident Reidan Fredstrom, 25, has seen many different bosses in her work as a temporary executive assistant. Although she may roll her eyes at some of them such as the manager who refused to make her position permanent, then asked her to train her replacement she tries to remain focused on proactive responses.

“Part of being an administrative assistant is learning how to manage the people you’re working for,” she says. “The key is to manage them without letting them know they’re being managed. Just figure out what they need, and what makes it easier on you and them.”

Ultimately, the best solution to the bad-boss dilemma is simply to escape. But it’s important to do so in your own time and for your own reasons. In the meantime, you can learn to cope. While “managing the boss” isn’t a skill you can list on a resume, that doesn’t make it any less important to your career.

–Etelka Lehoczky, 2004