Your Complete Guide For Dealing With A Jackass Boss Part 3
More strategies for dealing with a difficult boss in the last in this three part series.
In Part 1 of this series, we covered what to consider when deciding what to do if you have a toxic or “jackass boss. In Part 2, we looked at two harder core approaches: creating an exit plan (leaving), and putting forth an ultimatum.
In this part we consider more risky approaches, such as going over your boss’ head.
Appeals To A “Higher Power”
It’s the old “go-over-the-head” approach to boss problems. There are actually two forms of this.
1. The first is the out-in-the-open attempt to involve the boss’s boss to fix a difficult situation. The intent is to solve a problem, not get your boss.
2. The second attempt falls under the sneaky tactics because it’s behind the scenes, really involving the backroom politicking techniques you no doubt hate when they’re used on you.
Let’s take a look at these options.
Appeals to the Boss’s Boss
First, let’s look at involving your boss’s boss in the spirit of help and cooperation.
There are two ways of doing this.
The first is with the involvement of your boss. You approach your difficult boss, lay out the problem(s) you’re having with his or her behavior and decisions, and ask the person whether he or she is willing to involve the boss up one notch. The idea is to get your boss’s cooperation to enlist the help of the senior boss, and not to go around your boss without his or her involvement or knowledge.
This is often a good starting point because it portrays you as a problem solver rather than a backstabber.
There’s another reason. Some bosses will refuse to intervene in a problem situation unless both parties are involved in designing a solution.
What do you do if your difficult boss refuses? That brings you to a fork in the road. If you go over your boss’s head, that will be seen as confrontational and dirty pool. It’s really a form of backroom politicking.
You need to decide whether you are comfortable with that, and the probable consequences.
There is a middle ground. You can let your difficult boss know you’re going ahead anyway and that you will be talking to the next boss up. Or you can do it without informing your boss. The first is more fair but allows your difficult boss to get there first. However, it looks better.
In the spirit of cooperation, when you speak to the difficult boss’s boss, you must stress that you only wish to solve a problem that affects productivity. If you come across as having an ax to grind, or worse, want your boss’s job, you’re not likely to get any support at all.
Here’s a little trick if you decide to go to your boss’s boss. Present the problem and its effects on things like productivity or the bottom line. Do so fairly. Then ask for advice and suggestions as to how to handle the situation. This shows deference and respect. It paints you as willing to listen and is far better than providing the solution yourself. Think of it as managing the boss’s boss.
Appeals to the Human Resource Department
You can give a call for help to a third party. Sometimes the human resources department can be helpful in either intervening as a neutral third party or helping you find another position in the company. However, unless your boss is acting contrary to specific company policy or is doing something illegal, the human resources department may be impotent. Usually human resource departments don’t have formal authority over a manager without some violation of the rules.
One other thing you should know. It isn’t uncommon for human resources departments (or any department) to be what we might call “leaky.” Things get around even if there are confidentiality rules. Assess whether you can trust the third party you approach for help. And assess any potential damages if someone leaks information that eventually gets to your boss.
Things To Consider
Human resource departments … OK, I don’t live in a barrel. I know that many human resource departments are unable to help with difficult bosses (or anything else). Before you go off on your boss, consider that it is very rare for a human resources department to have any real power at all. They may want to help but are often not in a position to do so unless your boss has committed a violation of some sort. It’s still worth finding out what your human resources department can do with your problem, but be understanding.
If your human resources department can’t help, don’t vilify the people there. The last thing you need is human resources personnel who think you are the problem.
Getting sneaky includes indirect attempts to rally support to your side of the issue and organizing others whom your difficult boss manages, and can include things like boss sabotage (making your difficult boss look bad). I consider most of these practices unethical, although some informal lobbying or organizing people to improve the health of the company might be reasonable. Or, if there is illegality, then the stakes are higher.
One problem with getting sneaky is that you drop to your difficult boss’s level of scuzziness — or even below your boss. You sacrifice integrity and doing-the-right-thing thinking in order to win. So it darn well better be an important game to win.
Do you want to go home every night plotting the downfall of your boss? Or scheming about that meeting coming up? Don’t you have better things to do with your time than damage or manipulate people? If you don’t mind the plotting and scheming, then you have a chance of pulling it off. If you DO mind, then you probably aren’t going to be any good at it, so don’t try.
If you do go this route, you must have a power base or sphere of influence you can use to apply back-channel pressure. You need to be comfortable using people. You need to know when to push and when to back off, and when to stop. And you need to keep in mind that you are doing all these nasty things to make the workplace a better place, rather than for your own vengeance.
It’s a dirty game. But sometimes business is a dirty game. I’d pass on this approach if I were you.
Working It Out
The most productive option you have is to try to work out your problems with the difficult boss. That means sitting down, negotiating, listening, compromising, and finding some common ground. It means finding some solution both of you can live with.
It’s almost always the first step you try after you have determined you can’t ignore the situation. If it doesn’t work, you still have the more heavy-handed options.
Here are some suggestions for you. Before you approach your boss to initiate a discussion, plan out your course of action. Decide the facts of the situation and try to be objective. Figure out what is important to the boss, and how you might sell some specific solution or suggestion. Decide beforehand what you will do if the negotiations fail, and how much you can bend.
During the actual discussions or negotiations, keep your cool. You’re dealing with a difficult boss here, so be alert to any attempts to manipulate your emotions.
Enter into the negotiations with a positive attitude and express that openly. Saying something like:
“I’m sure we can work this out between us if we work at it, and I think it’s worth it.”
Try to keep the ball in the boss’s court if you can. Ask the boss for potential solutions, and press a little bit. Also, try to listen as much as possible to determine what the boss needs to make a solution work. Use “we” as much as possible. Use “I” as sparingly as possible.
If you come to a successful resolution, decide whether you need something in writing or not. Often it depends on the issue. Is it possible this will become a legal issue or a company policy? Then you politely request something in writing. Or, as an option (this often works better), draft a brief memo outlining the agreement made and ask your boss to sign it. Keep in mind that some people are hesitant to commit anything to paper.
Getting a written commitment isn’t always possible with a difficult boss. The challenge of working it out is that it takes two.
You may be willing, but your boss, being difficult, may not be willing. Still, it’s an almost mandatory starting point when dealing with a difficult boss. If it doesn’t work, at least you tried, and you will be able to prove you tried.
Living With It
This brings us to the last option. Whatever the issue, you can just plain suck it up, keep your mouth shut, and live with it. That sounds terribly wimpy, right? But even hard-nosed negotiators know when it’s time to fold ’em. Fighting losing battles is a waste of time.
Living with it may be a viable option if …
➤ You can truly live with it without suffering damage to your health and/or career.
➤ The difficult boss behavior is annoying but not critical.
➤ Any stronger action is liable to be more damaging than doing nothing.
➤ You are financially unstable.
➤ You have other personal or family problems and cannot deal with yet another set of problems.
Apart from your own feelings about doing nothing, there are some situations where doing nothing is not an option. If your boss is doing something illegal or something that puts your company or others at risk, you might have to do something. Here’s why. If you’re aware of illegal or improper acts but do nothing, you may be held accountable.
For example, let’s say John, your boss, does things that could be construed as sexual harassment. The behavior is consistent over time. You know about it. You do nothing. As a manager (particularly with respect to your own staff), you might be included in any legal action launched as a result of John’s illegal behaviors.
You get the idea. Management comes with some ethical responsibilities, but also with some legal ones. Sometimes the consequences of doing nothing are so severe that it isn’t an option. Again, it’s your call.
Wrapping It Up
The options we’ve set forth here aren’t mutually exclusive. You can, for example, prepare to leave your position (quietly) while trying to work it out with your boss. You can try to work it out with your boss while including your boss’s boss. However, remember that you should start with the least possible force. You can always escalate if you feel it’s worth the risk. And no matter what, you have to present the appearance of working in the interests of your company. You must never appear to be trying to destroy your boss for your own personal gain. It usually backfires.
The bottom line here? Decide what you are willing to lose and what you are willing to accept, and consider the costs of any actions you might take. Evaluate yourself first.