So you have a bad boss. What can you do?

So you have a bad boss. What can you do?

A terrible workplace can seem bearable under a good leader, while a bad manager can make you feel miserable in your dream job. Istock image

I never forgot the first piece of career advice I received from my family: “You don’t work for the company, you work for your boss.”

A terrible workplace can seem bearable under a good leader, while a bad manager can make you feel miserable in your dream job.

So if you find yourself working under a terrible boss, here’s some bad news: your only way out might be out the door — leaving the job. 

That is what 26-year-old Akanksha* did. An aspiring conservationist from Bengaluru, she joined a reputed environmental non-profit in Bengaluru as a fresher.

To her horror, she discovered a work culture shaped by the founder that had no accountability, with little space for professional growth. “There was so much gaslighting at that workplace, I started to question my own self worth,” Akanksha says.

But she couldn’t quit immediately — job opportunities in the conservation space were limited, and most hiring took place through word-of-mouth. Today, Akanksha works at a much better organisation — but the two years at her first job, until she found a way out, were a nightmare.

So, what can you do to get through the ordeal of working under a terrible manager?

“I mostly try not to let the conversation enter personal zones, as I know they [bad managers] tend to pass off horrible opinions as sensible ones,” says Suchetana*, a mechanical engineer who switched careers mid-way.

The 30-year-old marketing professional has seen her fair share of toxic workplaces, and has noticed a pattern of how they function.

Horrible bosses “try to make you feel less confident and intelligent than you are,” she says, “because then you’ll trust your own instincts less and less as you keep working with them.”

An unsupportive HR department, nonsensical processes, family-run outfits, startups with “dynamic founders” who only read self-help books are all red-flags for Ameena*, a communications professional based out of Bengaluru.

Other common complaints include petty managers, team leaders who shirk work but take all the credit, and managers who expect you to be on the job 24/7.

So, here’s a small checklist to navigate interactions with bad bosses.

1. Get. Everything. In. Writing: Getting things in writing is a good practice — whether they are the goals assigned during ‘informal meetings’ or discussions about pay hikes. Build a habit of communicating through emails (and then archiving your professional communication). This is good insurance against a bad team manager or company.

2. Communicate during official hours: Unless the building is on fire, avoid receiving phone calls during your days off or at unusual hours. A simple ‘out of office message’ during a vacation, or a separate personal phone number is a good way to maintain boundaries between the professional and personal. 

3. Disengage from work: Bad bosses require you to perform a lot of unpaid emotional labour — constantly watching out for someone’s moods or outbursts can be taxing. In the short term, find safe ways to take your mind off work. Walking to your workplace in the morning, a long tea break or a quick phone call to a close friend to vent your feelings can all help you get from one day to the next.

4. Let it go: There’s no pleasing a micromanager or perfectionist. Try to disassociate your self-worth from the job you do. Often, the feedback your manager provides is valid and crucial. But set boundaries. If you have made a mistake, admit to it and let it go. If your manager constantly provides negative feedback, find ways to provide yourself with positive feedback — getting colleagues or friends to evaluate your work might be one way to do this.

5. Talk to your manager: It is tricky to communicate honestly with your manager about their shortcomings without fear of some backlash. If you sense an honest conversation about your work expectations can make a difference, go ahead and give it a shot. A level-headed manager might take a step back and reevaluate. Others might not — so be prepared.

6. Move sideways: If it is just your manager that is bad, try a lateral shift within the organisation. Conversations with someone further up the chain (your manager’s manager) or the HR might be a good way to make this work. Building relationships with other team leads and colleagues could also set the stage for the eventual move.  

(*Names changed on request) 

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