Articles about dealing with a bad boss always seem to center on enduring the situation. They tell you to avoid being judgmental, to understand a boss’ situation, to find ways to relieve your stress – and to leave quitting or complaining as last resorts. The assumptions are always that you are powerless, and that you are the one who has to change. However, a few years ago, I discovered that another alternative exists. Instead of finding ways to cope, you can sometimes train a bad boss into better behavior, even if “better” only means leaving you alone.
The setting was a small high-tech company where I was working as a technical and marketing writer, attached – who knows why – to the testing department. The new manager was a small, fussy man, with a great drive to conform to corporate culture to further his ambition. On being hired, he went out to purchase dozens of books on testing and management to decorate his office, all cataloged with stickers according to his own system, and none of which I ever saw him read. His office was soon decorated with motivational posters, corporate toys, and the most elaborately color-coded spreadsheet printouts ever. The result was so stereotypically perfect that, when a film maker wanted the perfect corporate setting, she chose his office.
As I might have predicted from his mannerisms and office, this new manager loved being in control. He was always insisting on progress reports (which he had the right to expect), and trying to change priorities developed in cooperation with other departments (which he had no business doing). Despite the fact that I had defined my position, he started trying to micro-manage me along with the testers. He also showed an alarming tendency to hold meetings, one on one or as a department several times a day, frequently at ten minutes before quitting time.
The company officers were either clueless or frequently absent, so complaining to them was out of the question. Nor did the manager himself have enough self-reflection that he would have welcomed advice or criticism. At the same time, department morale was plummeting, and the manager was seriously getting in the way of meeting deadlines, so something had to be done.
No one else would do more than make jokes at the manager’s expense, and several seemed worried about losing their jobs. As a consultant, I had seen jobs come and go, so I was less worried and had less to lose.
If the department as a whole wouldn’t act, I decided, it was time for me to show some initiative and lead a revolution of one. But it would be a polite revolution, with never a raised voice – just a calm and firm insistence.
Instead of waiting for the manager to assign priorities, I began telling him what the priorities would be, citing interactions with programming leads and other managers. Since he didn’t know my job, or where it fit into the company’s release schedule, he was more than glad to let me take over. For my part, I had been largely setting my own priorities since I started at the company, so I wasn’t taking on any extra work. Once I established quickly that I knew what I was doing, and would meet my self-imposed schedule, he was more than happy to spend his time producing elaborate color coded spreadsheets of my schedule for his own satisfaction while I returned to being productive.
Avoiding his meetings was a little harder. Fortunately, my work frequently involved making appointments with other members of the company, so I got into the habit of scheduling these appointments around the same time as his meetings, giving me an indisputable excuse to leave. The only meeting that I didn’t try to evade was the weekly departmental planning meeting, which I judged legitimate and occasionally useful for my work.
The meetings just before quitting time were hardest to get around. But, in the end, I hit upon a compromise of attending them until ten minutes after the end of my work day. Then I would plead an excuse, such as a need to meet my wife or to go grocery shopping, and exit. If necessary, I was prepared to point out that, as a consultant, I got an hourly rate, so he should seriously consider if he was making good use of company funds to have me bill an extra hour for a meeting that could just as easily be held during normal business hours, but that fallback position was unnecessary. After three or four weeks, he was soon conditioned to scheduling any meetings with me at other times.
Throughout all these guerrilla tactics, I was careful never to have a direct confrontation with him. I stayed polite, and even joked with him, a tactic that furthered the larger campaign by encouraging him to think of me as an equal rather than a subordinate.
Outwardly, I was a model employee, showing commendable initiative. It was only inwardly that I was undermining his authority.
I do admit that I wished I could tell someone what I was doing. I became fond of whistling “The Black Freighter” from the Threepenny Opera, but, fortunately, no one else in the department was a Bertolt Brecht fan.
In the end, I gained what I had wanted all along: The ability to work unmolested by meaningless interruptions. And when the manager was fired after a few months for incompetence, I felt my subversiveness fully vindicated.
Some people are horrified when I tell this story. In effect, they say that I stepped over the line and didn’t show myself a loyal employee. But, to say the least, I would beg to differ.
No employee is being paid to obey orders. They’re paid for results, and this manager was seriously interfering with those results. While I admit that a large part of my motivation was my own peace of mind, what I did allowed me to better accomplish what I was paid to do. Besides, no job is worth unnecessary stress. For these reasons, I would have no hesitation in doing the same again.
Of course, being a consultant rather than a regular employee, I had the advantage of being more independent than a full-time employee. Also, I knew my job far better than the new manager. But my experience convinces me that most so-called job experts are leaving out some important advice for dealing with problem bosses.
Sometimes, you don’t have to cope. Sometimes, so long as you stay polite and show some initiative, you can survive bad bosses by training them out of their bad behavior.
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