How to Handle Your Bad Boss and Move on With Life

How do you deal with the boss from hell? The author provides some tips for federal employees facing this situation.

It’s a new day. The alarm goes off. You get out of bed and should be looking forward to going to work. After all you have a lot to be grateful for. You’ve got a job, can pay your bills, your family is doing well, and you’re working in an organization whose mission really matters to you. What more could you ask for? 

And…then there’s your boss. You know, the type of boss who makes the movie “Horrible Bosses” seem very real. The wound-too-tight, micromanager who is probably borderline insane. Or, the one who is so clueless you’re pretty sure you could not show up and he/she wouldn’t even notice.

Sigh. I feel you! Been there, done that. 

You know you’re supposed to be (and really want to be) positive but, despite your best efforts, you hear yourself start to gripe, grumble, and complain. Maybe it’s out loud, maybe it’s just in your head. “Dang it! Why does it seem like I always end up with the boss from hell?”

Here’s something you should know. The complaining—even the silent kind— is hurting you more than it’s hurting your boss. Don’t believe me? I’ve got proof! Travis Bradberry cites research conducted by Stanford University showing that complaining “shrinks the hippocampus- an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought.” Translation: Complaining causes brain damage. Definitely not good.

More importantly, complaining drags you down. It wastes energy that you could be using for more productive endeavors like finishing that presentation or knocking out those emails you need to write. It makes you feel bad leading to headaches, lethargy, and fatigue.

Not to mention what complaining can do to your “hall file.” In other words, it messes with your reputation. Do you want to be remembered as the person who lashes out, has a pity party, or becomes easily frustrated? Or do you want to be remembered as the person who always has a great attitude and makes their boss (and themselves) look like a rockstar?

I can hear you screaming at me right now. “Martha, you have no idea what it’s like working for this Nutjob every day! It’s awful! Not to mention mentally debilitating!”

I get it. And, no, I don’t expect you to just put a cork in it and drive on. Complaining is a natural human response when you feel like you have no other options. 

So let me give you some other, more positive, options.

1. Separate your response from your boss’ behavior.

Trying to make your boss behave the way you want them to is exhausting. (And tends not to go well.) You and your boss are both professionals with a job to do. Sometimes each of you does it very well. Other times, maybe not so much. So on the days when your boss is not behaving the way you think he/she should.  Consider the following questions to help you reframe the situation and pull the tension down:

  1. What is the real issue or concern that my boss wants me to notice?
  2. Is it possible that there is some element of this situation that I am missing or misunderstanding?
  3. If I were in my boss’s shoes, what would I want to have happen right now?

2. Remember win-win.

You aren’t Batman and your boss isn’t Joker. There isn’t a raging war between you.

Being a boss is stressful. Quite frankly, your boss’s response often has nothing to do with you. But the response YOU have to your boss’s response has everything to do with you. Here’s what you can do before things start to go south:

  1. Talk with your boss about how he or she likes to work.
  2. Then share how you like to work to perform at your best.
  3. Now, find the common ground between you. Feel free to try a few things and then re-visit the issue to see if each of you is getting what you need from the other. Remember, you’re building a partnership, not a dictatorship.

3. Create a positive culture.

Can I let you in on a little secret? Bosses respond to rewards too! There’s a little tool that I’ve used personally and taught to several clients. It’s called Powerful Appreciation, and I’ve proven that it works magic! It’s pretty simple. Challenge yourself once a day for 7 days to find something that you genuinely appreciate about your boss AND TELL HIM OR HER. 

Here’s an example:

“I really appreciate the detailed feedback you gave on the last report because it gives me a better idea of what you need. Thanks for that! It saves me a lot of time!” 

You’d be surprised by how the relationship you have with your boss does a complete 180 turn. Appreciation makes life a lot better. 

(WARNING: This only works if you find something you GENUINELY appreciate. If you try to make something up, it will come off like “brown-nosing” or “blowing sunshine up someone’s skirt.” Make it REAL.)

You may be thinking, “Why can’t my boss change? Why can’t he show me some appreciation? I’m the one who’s suffering over here!” Right. You are the one with the problem (annoying boss) so you are the one responsible for fixing the problem (feeling less annoyed and stressed). Remember what I said earlier, you can’t change your boss’ behavior but you can change the impact it has on you. Frankly, this one might take some effort on your part. But if you’re serious about handling a rotten boss this strategy will pay back your efforts many times over. (As an added bonus, it works on spouses and kids too.)

4. Deal with your own headspace.

Say it with me, “Change begins with [insert your name here]. Sure, bitching about how terrible your boss is can seem to relieve tension, but it doesn’t. It only recycles it. Nothing will change, and you’ll only increase your stress levels. 

Truth bomb: Your reaction to your boss’s behavior is what is causing your stress, not the actual behavior. 

Therefore, working on your mental and emotional fortitude is crucial. A life coach can help you find the right strategy that suits your personality and unique work environment. In the meantime, here’re those tips again:

  • Remember that you’re building your personal brand. How do you want to be remembered? You decide.
  • Internal personal leadership. Take the initiative to train your boss on how to work with you so both of you can perform optimally. 
  • Empathy helps. Sometimes you don’t know what happens behind-the-scenes that may be triggering your boss’ behavior. Try to put yourself in your boss’s shoes. Remember that it really isn’t personal.
  • Practice de-stressing tactics.

Putting It All Together

I’m all about taking back control of your career and your life. Life is short so why waste it getting worked up about a rotten boss? Focus instead on how you respond to your boss’s behavior. Be positive. Be committed. Be the rock star professional that you know you are. You got this.

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.