How Do You Manage a Bad Manager?

No boss is perfect, but some are downright terrible.

And if you’ve so far been able to avoid those, just you wait. “The question isn’t whether or not you’ll have a bad boss,” wrote John Beeson at the HBR blog. “Rather, it’s how you’ll respond when you do.”

Beeson said most of us either try to wait it out or jump ship, and that we should consider an alternative. “Start by doing some diagnostic work,” he wrote. “By helping your boss achieve his goals and communicating actively on those issues he cares about—and doing so in his preferred style—you can begin to build the boss’s confidence and make an imperfect relationship acceptable for the period of time you report to him.”

Sometimes, there’s really nothing a subordinate can do to help a boss. Consider Henry Ford. As Peter Drucker recounted in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Ford built up the world’s largest manufacturing enterprise and then, starting in the late 1920s, presided over Ford Motor Co.’s decline for two straight decades. “It was first and foremost the result of his refusal to accept managers and management as necessary,” Drucker wrote.

Image credit:

What’s much more common is a boss who has good intentions but serious blind spots that cause him or her to act inconsistently. “The manager who so misdirects his subordinates does not intend to do so,” Drucker wrote. Still, employees will lose confidence in leadership and in the enterprise.

In Drucker’s view, the solution was “a structure of management that focuses the eyes of managers and their bosses on what the job—rather than the boss—demands.” He called it, famously, “managing by objectives.” Each manager, “from the big boss down to the production foreman or the chief clerk,” must “know and understand the ultimate business goals, what is expected of him and why, what he will be measured against and how.”  One of the benefits was that this would “reflect the objective needs of the business, rather than merely what the individual manager wants.”

As for Ford, by the 1950s the company was under new management and had cleaned up its act, with arbitrary orders replaced by performance measurements based on its goals. Drucker admired the transformation. “Management,” he wrote, “has become management by objectives.”

How have you dealt with bad bosses—and what advice do you give others who are stuck with a bad boss?