Bad Boss: Is It Your Day to Be Dilbert?

There’s something universal about having incompetent leadership that we can all understand—ergo the success of the Dilbert cartoon. I doubt that any of you can get through your career without Dilbert’s boss appearing. Sad but true.

I’ve spent a significant portion of my one-on-one time with coaching clients talking about how to deal with a bad boss, be it a board or an individual. I’ve worked for a couple in my career, and although I’m confident in my leadership ability, I know I wasn’t a stellar leader in all situations.

What’s most difficult, however, isn’t the infrequent bad behavior from a boss. We all deal with that. It’s the boss or board members who are consistently poor leaders. Those I encounter typically suffer from one or more of the following:

  • Inability to trust others
  • Putting their self-interest ahead of the company’s
  • Unwillingness to make tough decisions
  • Inability to create a winning team
  • Reluctance to admit mistakes and ask for help; blaming others

There are just some bad people in the world often caused by genetic makeup or poor parenting. They won’t change. However, I still believe that most people don’t want to be bad bosses. They want the organization to succeed, but they have poor self-awareness and a lack of skill.

So, Dilbert’s boss is now your boss. Every week. Every day. Every hour. What do you do? Quitting is a viable option, and I believe that to be a good leader, you need to be willing to risk your employment status (by quitting or getting fired) to do the right thing. But the positives of the current job outweigh the negatives, so you need a strategy to deal with your boss. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Realize that you aren’t helpless and you have options. Write them down.
  2. Identify how much of this you own. Are you doing your level best, or is some of this your fault?
  3. Buck up and have an assertive conversation with your boss about how you might provide more value to the company (and to him or her) if you could change a few things. Your discomfort with your manager’s style isn’t going to be on the top of his or her worry list, so make it about the value you can bring or how you can better help your boss or the board succeed.
  4. If your nominal leader isn’t leading, do it for him or her. What can you do to better the situation? When you succeed, try to give your boss credit. If you hog the glory — even if you deserve it — it’ll backfire.
  5. Focus on what you can control. It isn’t your job to remake everyone in your image. It also isn’t reasonable that your boss is always wrong. You work in a hierarchy. Get over it or find a new one.
  6. Find someone to help you review your perspective (e.g., a coach, confidant or mentor). Can you reframe the situation in your mind?
  7. If you’re asked to do illegal or unethical things, don’t. Quit if you must.
  8. If you’ve tried everything above to no good end, make an exit plan. If you’re miserable for an extended period, it’s your fault. You decided not to change it. You’re not a tree, you can move!
  9. Learn from your experience. Whatever your boss is doing to make you unhappy, do the opposite with the people you lead.

There’s a difference between a rough patch and a hellish environment. Resilience will get you through the first; the list above should help with the second.

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