Skip to main content

What If Your Boss Really Is a Jerk?

What If Your Boss Really Is a Jerk?
Based on It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (Jossey Bass, September 2010)

Have you ever had a boss who really was a complete jerk? Maybe you have one right now. Consider the seven most common jerk-boss scenarios and what you can do:  

Jerk Boss Scenario 1: The boss lets small problems slide, but then comes down like a ton of bricks when one of those small problems gets out of control and causes real damage and cost.

What You Can Do: Constantly search for small problems to solve and small improvements to make. Make problem-solving a regular part of your ongoing dialogue with this boss. Before you start a task, responsibility or project, keep asking your boss, “What is wrong here? What could go wrong? What do we need to make sure this doesn’t go wrong?” After completing a task, responsibility or project, keep asking your boss, “What is one thing I could have done better? What is one thing I could do better right now? What is one thing I could do better next time?”

Jerk Boss Scenario 2: The boss imposes his obsessive-compulsive preferences on you even though there is no clear business reason.

What You Can Do: Always work from a project plan with this boss, including a clear schedule of deliverables, all the specifications for each deliverable and a step-by-step list of concrete actions. Before digging into any significant project with this boss, talk through in detail any applicable rules, regulations and standard operating procedures. Whenever this boss insists on giving you idiosyncratic, personally chosen preferences, talk through in detail exactly how those preferences deviate from the plan, rules, regulations or standard operating procedures. If there is no deviation, then these are not idiosyncratic preferences.

Jerk Boss Scenario 3: Your boss starts treating you like a beck-and-call-assistant.

What You Can Do: Use each solo interaction with this boss to get as many to-do items as possible all at once. That means you need to keep a pad of paper and pen (or an electronic tool) handy at all times. Every time your boss gives you an assignment, keep the conversation going by asking, “OK, I’ve got that. Then what? Then what? Then what?”

Jerk Boss Scenario 4: The boss pretends things are up to you when they are not.

What You Can Do: At every step, force your boss to spell out every requirement and every expectation for every task, responsibility and project. Ask for rules, regulations, established best practices and standard operating procedures. Ask for checklists, examples and work samples. Whether these tools are available, always make your own plan, to-do list and checklist in writing, and run them by the boss before starting the work.

Jerk Boss Scenario 5: The boss isn’t keeping track of what’s going on, but makes big decisions that affect everyone.

What You Can Do: Keep your boss informed every step of the way of exactly what you are doing, as well as why you are doing it, how, where and when.

Jerk Boss Scenario 6: The boss soft-pedals his authority until something goes terribly wrong and then becomes authoritarian when there is a strong disagreement.

What You Can Do: Help the boss build authentic rapport with you by talking genuinely about the work you have in common. Every time your boss tries to shoot the breeze, talk about the work. Ask for guidance, direction and support. Talk about your goals, deadlines, projects and plans. Talk about your performance, your training needs and work conditions.

Jerk Boss Scenario 7: The boss is intimidating, mean or abusive.

What You Can Do: This is the boss’s psychological problem, not yours. Stay professional. Bite your tongue. Never raise your voice. Get your marching orders and go about your business. And keep detailed notes about what the boss did and said. If it is an ongoing problem, you might have to report the behavior to senior management, HR, the legal department or the EEOC. But it’s best to avoid this if you can.

[Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders and a sought-after speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder of RainmakerThinking, a management-training firm. Tulgan is the author of Managing Generation X, It’s Okay to Be the Boss and many other books, including It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss. He has written pieces for numerous publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, The Harvard Business Review and Human Resources. He can be reached via email, on Twitter and on Facebook. His free weekly workplace video is available on his Web site.]

Education programs to fit your profession