NATION How do workers best cope with a bad boss?
Experts say communication is key to dealing with bad bosses.
NEW YORK -- When labor markets are lousy, as they are now, bad bosses tend to flourish. People are desperate to get new jobs and let themselves be abused in their present ones.
Brutal bosses are only too happy to oblige. Consequently, it is in times like these that bad bosses and complaints against them rise.
By all accounts, more and more people now have to struggle and suffer under a bad boss -- be it an insecure bully, an incompetent wimp, an intimidating idiot, a duplicitous dweeb, a petty perfectionist, a malevolent martinet or a Napoleonic nincompoop.
There is a new tolerance, even admiration, for these types in much of corporate America, given today's investor-driven emphasis on the bottom line -- profits at almost any price. If the boss can make his numbers and hit those oppressive quarterly targets, who cares if he leaves a little blood on the office floor?
"They don't sell $18 billion worth of antidepressants in this country for nothing," says Kurt Landgraf, president of the Educational Testing Service.
"The corporate culture is so accepting of these kinds of aggressive actions that they're not going to go away."
How bad it is
Research shows 17 percent of workers report being mistreated by their bosses. Gary Namie, a psychology professor and author of "The Bully at Work" says the victims are not only the employees but also the organizations they work for.
Another study by Joel H. Neuman, director of the Center for Applied Management at the State University of New York at New Paltz, concludes that bullying bosses produce hundreds of millions of dollars in losses a year as a result of their bad influence on absenteeism, employee satisfaction, consumer satisfaction, product quality and productivity.
"The No. 1 cost is turnover, particularly of the best and the brightest," Namie says. "Bad bosses are very threatened by technically competent and socially skilled staff. By comparison with them, the boss looks worse. So, the most talented employees are often the ones the bad bosses drive out. This means a talent drain for the employer."
What if you are stuck with a truly bad boss? What can you do to ease your plight?
One thing is to recognize you are not alone. Bad bosses have always been with us, as have brilliant bosses who had occasional dark flashes of manic malevolence.
Another thing that victims can do to help themselves is to give up any notions that the boss will just go away or wondrously change. He or she will not.
It is up to you to manage the situation -- indeed to manage your boss. Try to find out what moves and motivates your boss, what irritates him or her and what his or her style is, and play to those motivations.
What to do
The key is communication -- really over-communication. The initiative has to come from you, not your boss. Keep the boss posted.
Always ask what he or she wants from you. Constantly say what you are doing. Do not be afraid of being accused of kissing up.
Still another thing you can do is to form a support group with other victims. You'll probably find plenty of them because bad bosses tend to be equal-opportunity abusers.
Share your experiences and find out if other employees have found better ways to cope. Often it pays for you and several colleagues to approach the boss and tell him your grievances. He or she will find it hard to dispute or discipline all of you.
Do not blow your stack when the boss has a temper tantrum and badgers, belittles and brutalizes you.
Says psychologist Harvey Hornstein, author of "Brutal Bosses": "Attacking back and accusing the boss does not work very well because it catches him up short. Focus on the content of his message, not the curses."
The California state Legislature is considering whether some protections are needed. A proposed bill outlaws any "abusive work environment" and anything health-endangering would be actionable. Namie notes Britain and Australia have similar laws.
"Let's be frank," Namie says. "Employers are not going to get rid of bad boss syndrome until there is a law."