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The Upside of a Bad Boss

John Baldoni
John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He writes the "Leadership at Work" column for HarvardBusiness.org, and his most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

One thing I've learned from years of coaching, teaching and writing about leadership is that if you want to get people engaged you address a point of pain. Judged by the reaction of my last column on poor management, the frustration and irritation (even anger) is real when it comes to dealing with a bad boss. Sadly, poor management is an epidemic, but that that is no panacea. The real question is what you do about.

Leadership is about doing what the organization needs doing and very often that requires people to stand up and take charge, or at least exert their authority in order to make a positive difference. The sad reality is that many bad bosses get promoted because they have friends in high places. This is especially true of bully bosses; they make the numbers and so when examined from on high, and without talking to the people whom the bosses bully, these nasty people get rewarded.

Fortunately most bad bosses are not bullies; they are merely incompetent, promoted into positions based on past performance where perhaps they did a good job. Now they are in roles where they are responsible for others, and so they are hopelessly lost and often they are very afraid. Such bosses need (and might even welcome) leadership from below, anything that will help them save their jobs which by rights they should not hold.

Such bosses create opportunities for bright, energetic souls of good intention to exert their leadership. Before one can lead up, it is essential to be a capable performer. That is, you need to do your job and do it well. Such competence gives you the credibility you need to act. Here are some suggestions for managing from the middle.

Think strategically. Ask yourself how well your department is fulfilling the mission of your organization? Chances are if you have a bad manager, your team is falling short. Quantify the shortcomings according to people and tasks. That is, itemize how the skills and talents of your teammates are being underutilized on "make work" tasks or overworked by pushing for unrealistic goals without adequate time, resources and manpower.

Exert influence. Consider ways you can devise solutions that you can implement. Discuss with your boss how you could address some departmental shortcomings if more authority and resources. Be specific about what you want to do with this authority and describe exactly what you will do. Develop an action plan and get it blessed by your boss. (A bully boss will not bless anything so don't bother trying, but a boss who is flailing may be receptive.)

Take action. Put your plan into action. Report your progress, as well as your obstacles, to your boss. Keep him or her apprised of your process. When possible, involve your colleagues. This positions you as a genuine leader, one who wants more than individual success but also team success.

Be politic. If your project fails, man up to it. Take the heat. If it succeeds, share credit with your team. Make certain your boss gets part of the credit; after all he sanctioned your plan. (True enough an incompetent boss should not be in a position of authority, but if you want to keep your job you need to deal with the current reality. And so in the short term you need to make him - as well as your team - look good.)

Repetition of this cycle of influence and action, based on your credibility and competence, should get you noticed. It should ultimately put you in position where you will have the formal authority to put your ideas into action as a manager complete with title and compensation. (If it does not, then consider looking for new opportunities elsewhere in the organization or outside of it.)

Even when such measures are exacted, failure is a real possibility. As long as an organization tolerates managers who are hindering the performance of individuals and teams, the company will suffer. There is no excuse for poor managers and they should be removed. But, as so many readers have acknowledged, too many bad managers stay in place. That is an issue for human resources, in conjunction with senior leaders to address. That is not an issue for those reporting to a bad manager to solve.

That said leadership from the middle is necessary to effect positive change. "The life lesson for most people is that we can still make a difference, a little bit at a time," advised Captain "Sully" Sullenberg in his recent interview with "On Leadership." "But we have to choose to do so." Choosing to change means stepping forward with initiatives to make work more meaningful and to improve the end result for customers and consumers.

Leaders are those that make good organizations good -- whether or not they have a bad boss.

By John Baldoni

 |  October 30, 2009; 6:17 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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My comment is a little late-- but oh well.
So you have a bad boss?? Big Deal. Most jobs I've worked in had a CYA culture--skills & aptitude were secondary. A few years ago I was a manager and was unfortunate enough to have one of these bully bosses. He covered up his complete incompetence with threats and intimidation (every single day). Eventually he made his way to me, and that was his fatal mistake. I had spent months building a case against him (sworn statements from employees-- the whole bit). I had seen the writing on the wall, and was ready for him when he came a'knockin. Said employer settled out of court to clean up his mess. I drive a car to work everyday that's paid for by his monumental ego. How do you fight a bad boss? You have to be the bigger sociopath-- plain and simple.

Posted by: WellOiledMachine | November 11, 2009 6:54 PM

Let’s face it - a bunch of sub-prime individuals came up with this whole leadership, teamwork, and other buzz-words to say it’s ok to be incompetent b/c they figure it out that they don’t have the intellectual capacity to ever succeed otherwise. The business landscape nowadays is: dumb and corrupt rules!

Posted by: ship23 | November 1, 2009 10:07 AM

I'm sure there are millions of bad-boss stories but to me, that's wasting precious time because there are also brilliant bosses out-there. What is it that makes a b/b? From my experience, it is a desire to be that way, the willingness to work hard to change what needs improving and also the fact that the organization provides adequate ongoing support and development (executive one-on-one coaching). Too often, business expects people just to lead without adequate development and this cannot be done.

In my recent book, Sex in the Boardroom I outline many ways that leaders can be powerful beyond belief - I see it all the time and it's wonderful because when leaders do have the courage to leader powerfully, everyone benefits and productivity increases as does profit.

Posted by: IBCoaching | November 1, 2009 2:31 AM

Indeed. It's doing your boss's job for less money, more work-hours and no official standing that would allow you to delegate or to use official channels and support. What an upside! Anyone who'd accept any of that is a wimp.

Posted by: JB78 | October 31, 2009 9:56 AM

Indeed. It's doing your boss's job for less money, more work-hours and no official standing that would allow you to delegate or use to official channels and support. What an upside! Anyone who'd accept any of that is a wimp.

Posted by: JB78 | October 31, 2009 9:55 AM

Another thing to keep in mind about today's workplace is the dumbing down and functionalization of work. When IBM laid off staff, then hired them back at less money to do a smaller subset of what they had been doing, there was a purpose. The boss now has a factory of workers that they can "direct". Efforts to be multi-talented and valuable get punished. I try to interview and identify these kinds of places before I sign on, but I'm not always successful. The stupider bosses become lazier in this situation, thus inviting more dislike and disgust in their employees. The quality of management in this country has been going steadily downhill. It used to be that there was emphasis on learning how to manage and be a good leader. That is gone. My ex-boss is this type, too lazy to provide structure and intentionally hiring nice, brown nosing, no skills people. He's only vigilant over credit always being given to him. The latter should eventually get him exited.... His boss, the CIO, is an even lazier guy, who produces a few hours of real work a day, but shows up at 6:30 AM and leaves at 6 PM. The CEO is fooled and satisfied by the show of hours. One day it might add up that core systems going down shouldn't be a 2 day problem to correct! Maybe. The staff are too cowed to speak up. Yup, I am out of there.

Posted by: pointofdiscovery | October 31, 2009 12:47 AM

We had a toxic boss in a key position for years. He hired a toady who, though technically incompetent, harbored beliefs along the lines of those of the toxic boss. They both considered themselves to be "excellent" at leadership as they built their empire with all its secrets known only to a favored few within. Mr. Toxic Boss controlled information as a means to ensure his survival. Valid requests for services were rudely dismissed with words to the effect that nothing that hadn't been invented by him or his team could possibly be any good. Eventually he attempted a coup d'etat and was shown the door.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | October 30, 2009 11:04 PM

I work for one of these narcissistic bullies. His boss has him figured out, yet she doesn't do anything about him. Therein lies the fatal flaw for the organization.

As a middle manager, I'm still responsible for my job, and for cleaning up after him or doing what he simply refuses to do. He spends his days locked in his office issuing make-work to his subordinates to perpetuate the illusion of his omnipotence. I spend my days doing what he should be doing.

Sure I'm getting great experience by doing what's right for the organization. Yet by doing his job for him, my actions merely enable him to perpetuate the illusion of his own effectiveness. Things get done, and he takes the credit. In the meantime the well-being of those of us who report to him suffers.

In the long term, I can cover the day-to-day, but it's not possible to lead the organization from below an incompetent boss for the long term. The countervailing forces are too great.

A fish rots from the head, and those below can only do so much to make things right.

Just ask the Redskins.

Posted by: randr | October 30, 2009 10:44 PM

....In addition, one must do what's best for clients and customers, and be patient enough to wait for the bad bosses to hang themselves.

Posted by: szl888 | October 30, 2009 10:33 PM

I gather this is your recipe for surviving bad bosses:
Sprinkle the job with credibility, put a dash of influence, stir it with reality, and simmer in competence until it is well cooked.
I have long given up on my bosses. Both are very stupid and arrogant. I don't like them but I tolerate them. I love my job because I make it work for me by being competent and credible, and so, yes, it is a blessing to have bad bosses.

Posted by: szl888 | October 30, 2009 10:22 PM

I would like to respond to the FLEMINGLIBERAL comment from 6:00 PM.

Sorry but a boss who is "nice" but has no clue about the job, will NOT be respected by his/her employees. People may tolerate this person somewhat, but make no mistake they will not protect this type of boss.

I don't know how much you follow the international scene, but you may be aware that German people used to be known for their excellent work ethics, promptness, dependability, etc. Well, that was then, before they adopted the American way of doing business, which is be nice and forget about knowing anything about how to do your job.

I deal with European people from different countries and companies. I am amazed how much people have changed there and how clueless they are now (incidentally I am European).

The global economy is in shambles because we hire people based on anything else, but capability. Bottom line. Things will not change and prepare to keep on losing the jobs if we keep going down this route.

It's not about thinking that I'm smarter than others. I don't particularly care to work while others sit around, don't know anything about the job, yet they get paid as much as I do and many cases, more than I do.

Posted by: ship23 | October 30, 2009 10:01 PM

If you have a bad boss, leave after you find a new job. Yes there are problem solving strategies that can help, but in most cases you don't want to be the fool who puts up with some idiots egotistical bad behavior. It's best to minimize the amount of time you spend in that situation rather than just living with it for any longer than is necessary.

Posted by: Nymous | October 30, 2009 8:04 PM

Is that Dan Snyder's picture on this article. Maybe not, but it looks AND feels like it. Oh well.

Posted by: pjohn2 | October 30, 2009 7:29 PM

I have a different perspective. Incompetent is a big word and if you mean what I mean by incompetent, few bosses would fit that description. If you mean, "Do I think I could do a better job than my boss does," then yes, a lot of bosses are incompetent.

My experience is that bosses do not know how to work with different types of personalities. They are poor "people types". Their inter personal skills are immature and undeveloped.

A boss who does not really know his/her job well but is well liked by the department will go far because they will protect that person. It's when the employees don't like the boss that bosses have problems.

Also, there is an idea in American business that goes something like this: I've got this job because I'm smarter than you and I'm the best person for the job. No one could do this job as well as I do.

A little humility and more respect for other people would go a long way.

Posted by: flamingliberal | October 30, 2009 6:00 PM

I am stunned by the comment that we should make the incompetent boss look good (under be politic). So what you're saying is that we should in fact perpetuate the situation.

The economy is in shambles because in many companies the people up top are incompetent and the only reason why they got there is because they know how to brown-nose. Let's face it, in today's time it's not important how well you know you do the job, but rather how well you can BS. The CEOs don't really care about true performance because in case the company goes down they get rewarded with big farewell packages. In turn the CEOs surround themselves with people of their own kind, who in turn hire other incompetents, and so on and so on.

The current employment landscape is a complete disgrace and unfortunately the incompetents are here to stay.

On top of being bad bosses many of these are also crooks. We work with a subcontractors and one of them totally ripps us off. I brought this to the attention of my boss who is also a senior person in the company and nothing has been done. He totally allows the subcontractor to bill us for doing absolutely nothing and has been setting the stage to get rid of me.

Posted by: ship23 | October 30, 2009 5:39 PM

Yeah, I think pretty much everyone here thinks that the advice presented above is not really practical.

An overwhelmed/bullying/incompetent boss is a symptom of a larger problem, and that is lack of organizational leadership.

I am in this situation, and my boss is incompetent - no doubt about it. However, he is also not put into a position to succeed because HIS boss is incompetent, and HIS boss above him is incompetent.

It really starts at the top, and there is only so much one can do about it.

Posted by: mattsoundworld | October 30, 2009 5:03 PM

I lost my job when the World Trade Center was blown up in 2001. Three years prior to that, I worked for a man who was such a mean control freak, that I still have nightmares about him. Having a boss like that is such totally toxic situation that one should extricate ASAP.

Posted by: georgettec28 | October 30, 2009 5:02 PM

I agree with the other folks who commented on this posting. Mr. Baldoni's intentions clearly are the best (thanks for trying). But those working for bad bosses -- many in the WP's readership pool work for the Federal Government -- know these suggestions not only are unlikely to not work for one reason or another, but stand a very good chance of getting the individual in hot water with their immediate boss (most incompetent bosses don't like to be shown up) or company/Agency (most of which tend to support the chain of command no matter what). In general I find the office advice offered by the WP misguided and/or outdated. The NY Times does a much better job. Obviously bad managers on Wall Street and bad managers here in the Nation's Capitol have much in common. Sadly.

Posted by: VirginiaReader1 | October 30, 2009 4:45 PM

Your article presumes that readers want to be promoted to management. What about those that don't?

Posted by: skeptik3 | October 30, 2009 4:44 PM

dwight collins
i guess george w bush was a great president for 8 years.

hurricane katrina
9/11 on his watch
the worst economy in 75 years
his public speaking

back to the subject at hand
even HIS vp today has communicated what a dummy he was as a manager/leader
incompentence 101 and a harvard degree due to daddy

Posted by: kedavis | October 30, 2009 4:03 PM

My boss never follows up on complaints. She does not plan projects - everything is done on an emergency basis. She has her subordinates write personal essays for her (the boss) own applications for leadership development programs. Her best friend is allowed to alter her schedule at will, including pre-empting the vacations of others, and taking leave without being charged for it. The only good thing about her is her disorganization. It allows the competent to do their jobs with minimal interference (except when she calls to have us do her work, which is due NOW). I've tried all the manage-up techniques. Now I'm just using avoidance.

Posted by: babsy1 | October 30, 2009 4:00 PM

we have a bad president...
guess all we can do is strip the power of those who surround him first...
and then vote him out...

Posted by: DwightCollins | October 30, 2009 3:43 PM

There is something to be said for patience. The bad bosses will eventually have their demise. If they are jerk type bosses..it should come sooner than later..you just have to wait to let them hang themselves. If its a boss that is just plain dumber than a door knob in the area of management and leadership..its also a waiting game. People in this arena are found out through a serious of events that will call attention to their lack of abilities..the question is..how long will that take and what can you do.or not do to passively permit those events to happen? I have seen the sweet revenge-it does work..but you have to wait until they hang themselves (not in the physical sense incase you were getting excited).

Posted by: IGotLotsToSay | October 30, 2009 2:31 PM

Like most people, I've had dozens and dozens of bosses. Two of them were good; most of them were from bad to worse. Once the situation I worked in became so intolerable, I transferred to another division. As a result, my boss as well as two levels of management above him were transferred out of engineering into administrative jobs. Somewhere, someone knew the value of a good engineer.

Posted by: KateSaunders | October 30, 2009 2:21 PM

You wanna share some of that stuff you're smoking with the rest of us, Baldoni.

Producing anything "good" for the company by going around your bad boss means 1) the incompetent boss will take (and receive) the credit for it and 2) you will be targeted as a troublemaker and singled out for special torture from your boss.

Anyway, going over your boss's head in any way is nearly always a losing proposition. Because as dumb as your boss is, his boss is even dumber. Remember the universal rule of hierarchies: Bosses never want to hear bad news, thus the higher up the chain a person is, the less they know about what really happens.

If you can't get a better job, just keep your head down, slog through and hope for better days. It's not inspirational or fodder for a column in a "newspaper" but it's the truth, and we all know it.

Posted by: bigbrother1 | October 30, 2009 2:21 PM

In some respects, we all work for morons -- they run the world.

Posted by: Samson151 | October 30, 2009 1:21 PM

I am a school teacher and I have never had a good boss/principal. In most school division's the way to get ahead is by "sucking up." Most Superintendents I have had the opportunity to work with do not want people in the organization who question's "the whys" or the "what if's." And if you do, the administration starts attacking your character, your motives, and even going so far as to say you "don't like kids."

As a local leader of an education association, I can say they, too, are guilty of the same my-way-or-the-highway philosophy...to dues paying members (they often forget whose money it is they are spending). To them, constructive criticism is a personal attack, and they wouldn't know creative problem solving if it hit them in the head. They, too, will go to great lengths to discredit anyone who doesn't follow the company line or who dares to "speak truth to power."

No one person has all the answers for any organiztion. When employees or team members are left out of the decison-making process, there is no ownership or buy-in by those a leader needs the most.

I do have a Master's Degree in Public Administration, so guess my perspective is a bit "skewed." I know good management when I see it and it is missing in teaching (public education).

Unfortunately there are more incompetent leaders/managers than competent. Somewhere they lost perspective and forgot what leadership really means.

Posted by: ilcn | October 30, 2009 1:16 PM

My "bad boss" was a sociopath, an alcoholic, and a narcissist. She was PR director in a small hospital and was notorious for sleeping with many of the doctors, all the while doing little or no work in the office. She "read the paper" all morning, sobered up with lunch, and became a screaming harpy in the afternoon. She dared me to step one inch out of line. She did not like ideas or innovations. All the newsletters were my responsibility: I was writer, interviewer, photographer, designer, artist, and publisher. She sat behind her desk and laughed maniacally whenever one of her "friends" visited, then methodically denounced every one of their characteristics after they left. She made it clear to me that if I tried to get another job, she would give me a poor reference. It was H*LL.

Posted by: IIntgrty | October 30, 2009 1:14 PM

I question the premise that you can separate the incompetence from the politicking behavior that got the bad bosses there in the first place.

There just isn't an upside to having a bad boss; if they are a bully, they will bully you no matter what you do. If they are incompetent, they will take the improvements you make and claim them as the result of their management skills.

If I trusted an organization well enough to do a confidential 360 review, then maybe the bad boss' boss would get a clue, but good luck with that.

Posted by: LAGirl1 | October 30, 2009 1:05 PM

And I, too, believe in unicorns, fairies and pots o' gold at the end of the rainbow.

Nice try, tho.

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | October 30, 2009 12:54 PM

Generally, a bad boss is so bad that he or she negates anything positive that could come out of subordinates. It is often something subtle, like not following through with senior management when a staff member has a great idea, or sores ignoring or not having even been aware of that idea.

A boss has only a brief period of time to rectify things once he or she starts losing control. After that credibility has been lost, it can't be recovered.

Posted by: Wallenstein | October 30, 2009 12:18 PM

This is a very upbeat article. Alas, I must tell the good Mr. Baldoni that there are bosses who are as bad as they come and no amount of positive (and sincerely helpful) intervention will work. I had a boss who was not only inept, but a bully as well. Nepotism got him the job though he was inexperienced and had an unpleasant demeanor. Once in the job, he neither sought nor accepted advice/suggestions from his aides. Once, I dared to stop an ill-advised and illegal transfer of funds only to be verbally assaulted and physically threatened -- fists pounding, he made it clear to me and everyone in shouting range that his actions were not to be questioned. Not much later, I had to leave my job, one that I had for over a decade, and one that I truly enjoyed. He stayed on, surrounding himself with sycophants and protected by his boss for some mysterious reason. Bottom line: bad guy wins, good guys ( I wasn't the only one forced out) lose. Sorry, Mr. Baldoni, my terrible experience has soured me on any touchy-feely interventions. The real world just isn't that forgiving.

Posted by: Jonas4 | October 30, 2009 12:16 PM

Sounds nice
In my experience, this advise will have one seeking new employment sooner or later. The missing link here is how many lears/managers here as described here are insecure. And addressing and mentioning any of it no matter how will cause an attack - by them. Dan Snyder knows he's making $ and also that he's not successful on the field, but try working for him and communicating it and you'll be Marty. Remain qiet and go-along-to-get-along and you'll be Vinny and fail together.

Posted by: kedavis | October 30, 2009 12:06 PM


but, what's up with those senior leaders that "refuse" or "can't" do anything about this nonsense. It is one thing having a bad (bullY) manger and it is another to know it and allow it to continue.

Posted by: jrzshor | October 30, 2009 12:03 PM

That's good advice if you are in a large company. My "boss" is the owner of the company. He's a micro manager with control issues but he does love the "blame game." Unfortunately, his inability to *listen* to people is driving the company into the toilet. His "I don't believe in budgets" and shotgun approach to marketing (plan?? You just be kidding... Strategize? What's that?) "I don't allow sick days because employees will call and lie about being sick" will be his end. If econ times and jobs were better here, I'd be long gone. He's a dinosaur from a different age. Funny thing is, I'm older than he but he doesnt' look beyond his own dysfunctions.

What is broken here could be fixed but as long as he's in command, it's a slow spiral downward. True seat of the pants flying here. And hang on, the ride is getting bumpier...

Posted by: itsagreatday1 | October 30, 2009 11:53 AM

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