More often than not during a workshop, someone will raise their hand and ask, “All of this stuff about being a good leader is nice, but what do I do about my lousy boss?”  Being fairly fast on my feet, I resort to the facilitator’s fail-safe of “asking the audience” before offering my own suggestions on this dicey issue.  Not surprisingly, there are few satisfying answers (that don’t include jail-time for you as a possible outcome) to this dilemma shared by so many. 

Generally, the complaints fall into one of the following categories:

Doesn’t support me

Offers plenty of criticism

Criticizes/berates in public

Contradicts himself/herself

Micromanages and then criticizes me for not making decisions

Takes credit and dispenses blame

Loves his ideas…won’t listen to our suggestions

And so on…

The fact is that as the subordinate you don’t have many good options unless you have grounds for complaint based on harassment, discrimination or other legal concerns.  For sake of discussion, let’s limit the complaint list to the interactions and issues highlighted above.

What’s An Emotionally Abused Employee to Do?

The responses back from other workshop participants fall into similar categories and reflect the limited number of options that the victimized employee truly has in this situation.  (My value-add in italics.)

Approach the manager and provide feedback on the disturbing behaviors.

I like this one, because it reflects that someone is thinking about applying the workshop content to a real situation.  Some well-intentioned managers are not aware of all of their bad habits, and the properly constructed feedback conversation can be a valuable coaching tip for the manager.  Less enlightened managers will respond with anger and/or retribution.  My advice…read the situation, read the manager and it might be worth a carefully constructed conversation to raise the topic.  If the manager views you as wanting to help him/her improve results/performance, you may pull this off.  If you start softly and the conversation quickly deteriorates, bail out.

Take your complaint(s) to HR

HR professionals everywhere may rankle, but I hate this suggestion.  Setting up HR to be the father and mother confessor and creating the expectation that HR can fix all of these issues is poor practice in my opinion.  I’ve worked with a few deft HR professionals that can help individuals and teams navigate this type of a situation, but they are in the minority. 

Leapfrog your boss

This is another risky proposition, and people employing it need to keep in mind that in a “he said/she said” debate between you and your boss, you lose. 

Approach the boss en masse

This, “safety in numbers” strategy has a high failure rate, because when push comes to shove everyone is more concerned about their job than trying to get the boss to change.  If you are leading this charge, be prepared to go it alone.

Transfer within the company

If you like and are committed to the organization, a transfer can be one way to potentially escape a lousy boss.  Follow your firm’s posting rules, don’t do anything behind your manager’s back and hope that he/she doesn’t make the process more difficult for you.  Also, if you apply for and don’t get a job in another department, remember that you still have to work for the lousy boss. 

Leave the organization

This is often the path that good people take, and it certainly solves the immediate problem.  If you do not believe that you can escape the clutches of this lousy manager and if you are not committed to your organization for your near-future growth, exiting stage right is great.  However, look before you leap.  Choosing a job just to escape a boss is an emotionally charged situation that can have you making a bad and potentially career damaging choice.

The Bottom-line for Now

I suspect like most of the workshop participants seeking wisdom from their peers, that you might leave this post feeling like you didn’t find the answer you were looking for.  My polite rebuttal is that the easy answer you are seeking doesn’t exist.  Most of us have worked for leaders that we’ve not respected and have probably tried some or all of the above approaches along with a “Wait and See” tactic.  Choosing your approach depends a lot upon your situation.  How badly do you need the job?  How comfortable are you in dealing with potential repercussions?  Is your organization’s culture tolerant of aberrant leader behavior or are those types eventually flushed out and eliminated?

My guidance is to take personal stock of your situation, recognize the risks that you are taking in pursuing any line of action (or the psychic damage in doing nothing), prepare and act.  I offer polite, constructive feedback (I coach upwards) and if that doesn’t work, transfer or leave.  Life is short and you should not let your career or your self-esteem be held hostage by some chuckle head of a leader.