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Do You Have a Bad Boss?

A bad boss can make life unbearable, but there are proven ways to successfully work with one.

Ellen Foord

There are few things in life as soul-crushing as a bad boss. Even if you’ve managed to find your dream job, the experience can sour quickly under bad management.

Before you resign yourself to spending your days cowering at your desk, take heart: author and psychologist Dr. Noelle Nelson has the secret to getting around that bad boss and coming out on top.

How a Bad Boss Affects Your Career

So, exactly how damaging is a bad boss? According to a survey done by talent management experts Development Dimensions International (DDI) in 2011, 60 percent of employees reported that a boss had damaged their self-esteem, and two out of five employees have actually left a job because of their boss.

Researchers from University College London reported that work stress increases the risk of heart attack by 23 percent, and a hostile office environment has been shown to significantly increase the risk of sudden death.

Unfortunately, for the most part, not many of us can afford to quit when a boss isn’t to our liking. Even if a new position elsewhere were to magically appear, eventually, you’d likely encounter another bad boss.

Want more advice on how you can work with your boss? Follow these 9 Ways for Managers and Millennials to Succeed.

There Is Hope for Dealing With a Bad Boss

Luckily, Dr. Nelson knows how to transform any bad boss from foe to friend and she shared her top tips to make your working hours less painful in a recent webinar for Bentley University, sponsored by Alumni Career Services.

“Everything we do in life is determined by two things: what we run from and what we run toward,” says Dr. Nelson, author of Got A Bad Boss?. There are things we run from (like pain, poverty, loneliness and illness) and things we run toward (love, success, prosperity and health). “Bosses are no different. Your bad boss runs from the things that are a source of fear, and toward the things that are his or her secret desire.”

As Dr. Nelson noted during the webinar, unlocking your boss’s secret fears and desires is the key to a successful working relationship, and will allow you to become a valuable resource.

How to deal with a #badboss. Get #career advice from @DrNoelleNelson #preparedu


What would make you be loyal to a company? Read these three stories from employees about why they stayed.


3 Types of Bad Bosses—and How to Cope

Here are tips and tricks to deal with a few common bad bosses.


Fear: This bad boss lives in perpetual fear that someone will find out he or she has made a mistake. “A Finger-Pointing Boss has one goal: to absolve him or herself of any mistake, problem or failure that could conceivably be attributed to him or her,” says Dr. Nelson. Unfortunately, this means all the blame will likely land on your shoulders.

Desire: 100 percent success. This is the secret to working with a Finger-Pointing Boss: be the problem solver. If you can fix problems, your boss will stop pointing the finger at you and bring you into the loop.


Before the Blame Hits

  1. Document everything you are told. Note it, and be ready to show your notes upon request (so keep it professional!) and use your notes to clarify any and all requests.
  2. Document everything you do. Make a record of every action taken.

When The Blame Hits

  1. Stay calm and respond with “I’ll check on that right now.”
  2. Refer immediately to your notes.
  3. If you did make a mistake, admit it promptly.
  4. Ask “How would you like me to handle this?”
  5. If you did not make the mistake your bad boss is accusing you of, refer to your notes and show evidence of innocence in a neutral tone, avoiding argument or baiting.

Dr. Nelson admits that working around a Finger-Pointing Boss can be tedious. But, ultimately, you’ll gain more power as he or she comes to trust and rely upon you, which will put you in line for more responsibility, raises and promotions.


Fear: An Incompetent Boss is desperately afraid that his or her cover will be blown and will be revealed as unprepared and incapable.

Desire: The appearance of success. This means that the way to work around an Incompetent Boss is all about making him or her look competent.


  1. Prioritize
    When an Incompetent Boss suddenly assigns you an unrealistic workload, try saying, “I’d be happy to handle this. Which of these other tasks would you like to assign to someone else?” (Note: make sure to loop in all coworkers so each of you can be ready to pitch in to catch re-delegated tasks.)
  2. Clarify Expectations
    Force your Incompetent Boss to clarify what is required, by when, and what the criteria for success. Take your notes in front of your boss, so he or she knows it’s a written record. Your notes document your actions, as well as his or hers.
  3. Check Your Work
    Just because you’ve clarified expectations doesn’t mean your boss won’t have a sudden change of plans mid-project. Ask your boss to sign off on each step of the plan to ensure smooth communication and avoid conflict.

Dr. Nelson points out that, sooner or later, your Incompetent Boss will either rotate to another job or be called out for his or her incompetence—or you will have created enough of a personal track record that you’ll be promoted yourself.


Fear: This bad boss plays obvious favorites with preferred employees because he or she is afraid of being disliked.

Desire: The Favoritism Boss wants to be admired all of the time, by everyone. Since that can’t happen, this bad boss will make a pet out of the employees that fawn and flatter. In order to work around the Favoritism Boss, you’ll need to make him or her feel important, worthy and good enough.


  1. Give Yourself a Reality Check
    How much is the favoritism really hurting you? Are the perks given to the preferred employees at a direct cost to you, or is it a mere annoyance?
  2. Examine Your Work
    How good are you at your job? Are you performing over and above what’s expected? Try to take the focus off of the favorites and put it on yourself.
  3. Be a Team Player
    Do your best all the time with everyone, including the boss’s pets.
  4. Check In With Your Boss
    Once you’ve examined your performance, sit down with the boss in private for a review. Ask, “Is my work up to your expectations?” and “What can I improve?” Write everything down. You’re stroking your boss’s needy ego in a non-brown-nosing manner.
  5. Check In With Your Boss—Again
    Report regularly to discuss progress on your work and offer thanks for insight and guidance. The Favoritism Boss will revel in the opportunity to feel like a mentor.


You Will Survive a Bad Boss

Dr. Nelson stresses that it’s critically important to maintain your own self worth, despite your boss’s weaknesses. Be the best you can be, constantly improve your skill-set and the higher ups will notice you and reward your abilities. Use the time to go back to graduate school part-time and get your MBA.

No matter which kind of bad boss you might be stuck with, find a way to work around him or her, and you’ll soon be free of the bad boss trap.

And learn from the experience, so you don’t become a bad boss yourself!

Want more tips for dealing with a bad boss? Listen to Nelson's recent webinar for Bentley University. And check out other webinars in Bentley’s Career Speaker Series, sponsored by Alumni Career Services, for more expert career advice.

Ellen Foord is a freelance writer living in New Hampshire. A regular contributor for DIY Network, Ellen has been featured on Apartment Therapy, HGTV Magazine, Yahoo, Verily and more.