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Have a Bad Boss? Treat Him Like a Toddler

Tuesday, 5 Jun 2012 | 1:58 PM ET

Think you have a bad boss? Join the club: Nearly one in two employees say they have a bad boss, according to administrative-staffing firm OfficeTeam. Do an Internet search for “My boss is killing me” and it turns up more than 20 MILLION results.

Horrible Boss
Vincent Besnault | Stone | Getty Images
Horrible Boss

People waste A LOT of time stressing out about bad bosses — and it doesn’t end at the front door. On average, employees spend about 19.2 hours a week worrying about “what a boss says or does” — including a whopping 13 hours during the workweek and 6.2 of their weekend hours — according to a survey by Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT).”

What’s more, they can cost the company money: 77 percent of employees experience physical symptoms from stress such as heart problems, according to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Stressed employees cost employers nearly twice as much in health-care costs — roughly $600 more per person per year, on average.

“Bad bosses aren’t necessarily bad people, but they certainly can make work challenging for those who report to them,” said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam. “Often, individuals are promoted because they excel in a given job, but that doesn’t mean they have the skills to be an effective leader.”

“Friction between supervisors and employees can stem from differing work styles,” Hosking said. “It’s not possible to control your boss’s actions, but you can change how you respond to them.”

There are five types of bad bosses, OfficeTeam found:

  • The Bully. Sure, you need to be a bit of a jerk sometimes as a boss, but the bully takes it to a toxic level, publicly or privately threatening and humiliating employees.
  • The Micromanager. Sometimes you need to do the job yourself to make sure it’s done right, but the micromanager keeps a tight leash, helicoptering over employees’ shoulders to manage every little detail.
  • The Poor Communicator. It’s important to give employees space and not micromanage, but it’s crucial to give them enough direction to get the job done. The poor communicator provides little direction, which often results in the tasks having to be completed — or even redone — at the last minute.
  • The Saboteur. Oh, this guy is a piece of work! He undermines the efforts of others. He doesn’t give credit for a job well done — or worse, takes the credit himself. Then, he lays the blame on thick when things go wrong.
  • The Fickle Boss. This boss may be nice and all, but if she lacks clarity and decisiveness, it can leave employees confused and unproductive. Fickle boss can also have unpredictable mood swings — confiding in someone one day and turning on them the next.

“A lot of times, there are issues going on with the boss that employees don’t see — they think it’s about them — the employee — and they take it personally,” Taylor said. “Then, they don’t communicate with their boss and wind up acting inappropriately.”

Particularly in this tough economy, your boss may be grappling with trying to keep his or her job, defending his turf in an office land grab, making budget cuts or figuring out who to lay off — and even dealing with a bad boss of his own. So, it’s your job to remember there are other things going on and devise a strategy for dealing with your boss.

With the bully, OfficeTeam suggests you stand up for yourself. Don’t bully back — or get loud or angry — but rather, calmly stand up for yourself and explain your position. Often, this type of manager responds to a “voice of reason.” With the micromanager, it’s usually a matter of trust — “so make sure you build it,” OfficeTeam advises. That means you don’t miss deadlines, you pay attention to details, and you keep your boss in the loop.

You can head off the poor communicator by being proactive and asking a lot of questions up front. Don’t get aggravated — be diplomatic, OfficeTeam says. The saboteur is tricky, but one way to win this person over is to make him or her look good — just not at the expense of your own career advancement. Also, document, document, document — keep a paper trail, so if things go down, you have evidence.

The fickle boss is, of course, hard to predict ... like a squirmy child. Your best defense here is to not take mood swings personally. Remember it’s not about you and there’s probably a whole lot of stuff you know nothing about that’s making your boss act that way. When he or she is on edge, OfficeTeam suggests, try to limit communications to only urgent matters.

Employee-wellness company Keas offers three key tips for dealing with a toxic boss: Stand up for yourself — but be diplomatic and respectful; seek clarification when necessary to avoid miscommunications; and try to separate your personal ego from your business persona.

Taylor has a very simple approach to dealing with a bad boss: Treat him like a toddler.

“Employees should look at a boss who’s acting out like a toddler,” Taylor said. “Employees tend to internalize everything, but they forget that many times behind the pinstripes or pearls are really training pants!” she quipped.

Taylor notes that bad bosses and toddlers share a lot of traits: Tantrums, being demanding, stubborn, self-centered, and, like everyone’s favorite television nincompoop boss Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell on “The Office”), fickle with a short attention span, needy, and prone to mood swings.

Just because bad bosses are like toddlers doesn't mean you give them a time out. You know what? Just for thinking of that, give YOURSELF a time out.

Are you ready to listen now?

OK, let's continue.

When dealing with one of these bad bosses, you have to manage up — take almost a parenting approach, Taylor said. She uses the acronym CALM — Communicate (be open, honest and communicate frequently). Anticipate problems. “If you see a tantrum working its way down the hall, don’t stick your neck out!” Taylor advises. Laugh, “because it’s a great diffuser of tension and breaks barriers,” Taylor said. And finally, Manage Up. “We’re not speaking about parenting here or coddling,” she said. “If you’re good parents, you know there’s such a thing as tough love. You have to be a proactive problem solver, as well as a role model and provider of positive energy.”

If your boss throws a tantrum, your job is to act as quickly as possible. You can’t give him or her a time out, so your job is to do what Taylor calls a “reverse time out” — get yourself out of there.

“Stage a coughing fit, or say a client is waiting for your call — try to leave the scene and tell your boss you’ll speak to her later,” Taylor said. “You don’t fight a bully back with being a bully — or fight a tantrum with a tantrum. It will just backfire.”

In these tough economic times, with the labor market still shaky, employees tend to want to blend into the scenery — hope that if they lay low, they’ll avoid being the next to get a pink slip.

“The fear factor has gone up,” Taylor said. “So it keeps people feeling as if they need to stay under the radar and keep quiet, when now is a great time to be more communicative, more assured, understand what’s really on your boss’s plate and be more visible so you can rise up the food chain,” she said.

That’s right, now is a great time to break out of the pack and try to move up — even if you have a bad boss.

Taylor says one of the best approaches in a tough climate is to be the office diplomat.

“Sandwich negative information between positive — and end on a positive note,” she said. “Point to other people in the organization doing great work and don’t be afraid to praise the boss for things he or she is doing right,” Taylor said. “At the end of the day, we all want to be praised.”

It also doesn’t hurt to mention the things you love about your job.

And, while it’s funny to compare bosses to toddlers when you’re standing around the office watercooler or throwing back a few pints at your local watering hole — don’t be a wiseguy and TELL your boss he’s like a toddler. That’s the fast track to the pink-slip list. You’d have better odds of keeping your job if you came into work drunk or got up on your desk with your own rendition of "Sexy and I Know It."

And finally, while there are a lot of bad bosses out there and yes, they are very much like toddlers — you’re not off the hook, mister. You and I are part of the problem.

“Absolutely you and I are part of the problem!” Taylor said. “It takes two to tango. So if you’re defensive, if you’re not communicating with the boss, if you take things personally” — you’re only making a bad situation worse.

Does someone need another time out?!

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Contact Pony Blog

  • Cindy Perman is a writer at CNBC.com, covering jobs, real estate, retirement and personal finance.

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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