A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
We’ve all been there: you get a promotion, or a new job, or there’s a change of personnel and wammo – you’re working for the boss from hell.
The jerk. The kook. The sports nut. The glory hunter, the passive-aggressive, the one with the bad body odor, the ‘don’t bring me bad news’ bully, the kumbaya incompetent, the arrogant nerd genius – whatever flavor it is, there’s nothing worse than going into work every day knowing your boss is going to drive you bananas.
Sometimes, working for a dysfunctional boss can seem like being trapped in a hitherto undiscovered circle of hell: you have a bad boss, but the person to go talk to about it is…your boss.
So what do you do? Leave? Grin and bear it? Turn cynical and disengage? Take up martial arts as a way to vent your frustrations?
The answer, surprisingly, is that you can in fact change the dynamic. You might not be able to change your boss’s dysfunction, but you just might be able to change how it impacts you. Here’s how:
1. Identify precisely what the problem is.
When they find themselves working for a dysfunctional boss, most people go through a cycle: at first, one or two of the boss’s specific behavioral traits begin to irritate, then a few more, then some more, until eventually, seemingly everything merges into one seething mass of irritation.
The first step in dealing with a dysfunctional boss is to break down that seething mass into its component parts – re-identify, if you will, the original source(s) of the irritation.
Grab a legal pad (I suggest you do this at home, after work, for obvious reasons) and jot down precisely what it is about your boss that so irritates you. Be specific – ‘blathers on all the time’ isn’t very helpful. ‘Talks over me when I’m trying to make an important point’, is.
2. Check the problem is with your boss, and not you.
Take a look at your list. Are there more than three to six sources of irritation there? If so, the problem might reside with you, not your boss (few people are genuine ogres with a laundry list of character flaws).
Think back over your past bosses. If most of them have, in your opinion, been jerks, most likely you’re likely the problem, not them. Either that or you’re on the biggest statistical losing streak known to man.
On the outside chance that you genuinely do have a laundry list of irritations and your previous bosses were by and large normal people, then you do have an ogre on your hands, and you should get a reposting or find a new position.
3. Distinguish between the personal and the professional.
Assuming you have a ‘normally dysfunctional’ boss (i.e., one with a short list of specific, irritating behaviors, but not a laundry-list ogre) take your list and divide it into two: those dysfunctional behaviors that are personal (‘wears ghastly clothing’, perhaps) and those that are professional (‘tries to grab the glory for everything I do’ might be an example).
Now here’s the trick: Draw a line through the ‘personal’ dysfunctions. Forget ’em. Let them go. Stop letting them bug you. Why? Firstly, because you’re not going to change them, and secondly – and more importantly – people’s personal behaviors are going to bug you for the rest of your life, and you need to develop the ability to ignore them.
Whether it’s fashion style, hair choice, viewing preferences, what sports team they support, or their infuriating habit of pulling wax out of their ears using a toothpick, get over it. If it’s not affecting your ability to get work done, you need to let it go.
4. Gather your toolbox.
For what’s left – the professional dysfunctions – you need to start toting a toolbox into work. Here’s what should be in it:
Pre-emption: Idiot boss spellchecks every report you send, slowing you down by sending it back for meaningless re-writes? How about you start sending her the last-but-one version, clearly marked ‘Pre-spellcheck’?
Avoidance: Every Friday afternoon your boss swans into your office and unloads a bunch of petty tasks seemingly designed to screw with your weekend? What project or repetitive task can you volunteer for that means you’re not around on Friday afternoons?
Sandbagging: Your boss treats you like an intern, repeatedly sending you out for coffee or other menial tasks when you’re working on an important report. What if each time you email him a copy of the report as it currently stands with a brief note reminding him you’ve stopped work on it while completing his menial task?
By being creative, what other irritating behaviors can you pre-empt, avoid or sandbag?