Performance Communication , Workplace Communication

6 Successful Strategies for Surviving a Terrible Boss

6 Successful Strategies for Surviving a Terrible Boss

I’ve done many blog posts on how to be a better leader and supervisor as well as some that help readers identify when they’re not being at their best. However, I hadn’t thought about turning the tables and looking at the issue from the employee’s perspective, that is, what you should do if you have a bad boss.

There are many different types of bad bosses, from weak ones who hide from issues and hope they go away, to the loud, aggressive types who everyone fears, to the crazy ones who make the characters from the movie Horrible Bosses, look sane!

For you bosses out there who are reading this and thinking the problem of bad bosses isn’t a big one, think again. Research done by Katheryn L. Shaw, a Stanford professor and co-author of the working paper, “The Value of Bosses,” found that 65% of employees said they’d take a new boss over a pay raise. The same study, in which Shaw and her co-author studied 30,000 managers and surveyed the managers’ employees as well, revealed that, “… 3 out of 4 employees reported that their boss was the worst and most stressful part of their job.” The result? High turnover, high absenteeism, low morale, and low productivity, to name a few problems.

If you’re an employee who is just trying to survive each day while working for a bad boss, figuring out how to make life better for yourself and possibly your colleagues can be a challenge. However, there are things you can do to try to make things better for everyone – including your boss!

1. Identify and take responsibility for your role in the problem.

If you have a bad boss, be sure to look in the mirror first before confronting him. A relationship is built on the interaction and communication between TWO people. What’s been your role to date? Have you allowed yourself to become a doormat? Have you used sarcasm to respond to your boss’s demands? Are you overly sensitive to valid criticism or perceived criticism? Be sure to take ownership of any part of the problem that’s yours. If you confront your boss, let her know what part of the problem you own and how you’re going to change before confronting her about her behavior.

2. Be sure to have proof of your complaints.

Your boss (or anyone above him) is going to have difficulty taking your complaints seriously if you don’t have specific examples to share. For example, if you believe your boss treats you unfairly, you’ll first need to define what you mean by unfair. Does she refuse to give you time off, but lets everyone else have time off? Does he criticize you unfairly or excessively? Once you’ve determined what the undesirable behavior is, then you need to start documenting each time it happens, noting what happened and when.  This will help you build up a clear picture of a pattern of unfair behavior. By being able to share specific, irrefutable examples, you may get your boss to listen. If not, you’ll have evidence to prove your side of the story should you need to take the issue to higher ups, human resources, or an attorney.

3. Don’t share your misery.

It’s tempting to commiserate with co-workers when you have a terrible boss- after all, they’re probably experiencing poor treatment too, right? WRONG! Although it’s possible the boss is treating others poorly and it might seem cathartic to talk with someone about it, it shouldn’t be your coworkers. Sitting around complaining about the boss to others can make you look like a troublemaker and being preoccupied all day with how much you can’t stand your boss is not productive. Put aside the negativity and take positive steps to have a good attitude. If you need to talk to someone to vent or get advice, talk to someone in your human resources office or someone outside your organization.

4. Confront your boss when she’s not doing what a boss should do.

Whether it’s a boss who doesn’t take actions on complaints, one who screams and yells, or one whose feedback to you is less-than-productive, it’s always possible the boss isn’t aware of the problem, OR is aware, but doesn’t know how to fix it. Identify specific, concrete behavior she has exhibited, identify alternative behaviors you’d like to see, and then set up a time to talk with your boss about the problem.

When you share the problem, be sure to leave emotion and labels out of it. You shouldn’t say, “I’m sick and tired of you burying your head in the sand and not addressing problems,” instead try, “When we met on June 7, you said you’d talk with Sue that week and you’d get back with me on June 15. It’s now the 20th and I we still haven’t met.”

Additionally, although you should plan to be in control of your emotions, realize that this type of confrontation will likely be a surprise for your boss and you may get a very emotional response. Be prepared for how you’ll continue the conversation if this happens.

5. If your boss doesn’t respond appropriately, tell him before going over his head. 

If your boss is unable or unwilling to handle problems in your office, you are well within your rights to go over his head to his supervisor or to Human Resources. However, I believe strongly that you should always give fair warning before you do so. Sometimes the “threat” of having an issue escalate is enough to get a boss to finally take action.

Either way, if you go to your boss’s boss or HR, it could make things worse and you could be quickly labeled as a troublemaker or high maintenance, which could go against you should you be eligible for promotion or worst case, if the company faces layoffs. Therefore, before doing so, ask yourself if the potential benefit of escalation is worth the possible cost to you.

6. Get your resume updated and start looking for another position. 

If the situation is bad enough and you’ve tried all the options above, it might be time to update your resume and make a move to another department or organization. If you’re a valued employee your company doesn’t want to lose, this might just be enough to push your boss, or his boss, to do something about your complaint. However, don’t bet on it and don’t threaten to quit if you don’t really plan to do so, they just might take you up on it.

Amy Castro is a workplace communication expert, speaker, trainer, and writer of  The Performance Communication Blog. She also authored the book, Practical Communication- 25 Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Getting Along and Getting Things Done. For more information on workshops and programs she offers, go to


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