Horrible Bosses: How to Turn Things Around With a Bad Manager

Struggling with a bad manager?  Learn how to turn things around on CubicleHustler.com

One thing that I wholeheartedly believe about work is that you spend too much time there to hate what you do and who you do it with.  

You should like your company, your team and your manager.  

Having a good manager is like manna from heaven.  Someone who believes in you, wants to see you excel, and likes you as a person.  When those feelings are reciprocated, you have the recipe for a strong working relationship.  

But when you have a bad manager, it can cast a pall on every day of your life.  A bad manager will seep into your weekends and vacations - either on purpose by disturbing you during these times or through the thoughts of dread you can’t quite shake off.  They’ll ruin your Saturday because you’re still mentally going over everything that happened the past week and then they creep into your Sunday because by about 4 pm, you realize you have to start getting ready for the week to come. 

Life with a bad manager can absolutely suck.  

Trust me, I know.  I started my career in the beauty industry.  An industry that relies on creativity can also breed divas with outside egos.  

I’ve had my fair share of managers - some great and still friends to this day and some spectacularly bad.  And in that, I’ve figured out some work arounds to try to make the best of any situation.  


Is Your Manager Really Bad?

We talk about “bad managers” so much but first we have to know what that really means.  If you think you have one, ask yourself what makes that person so bad.  Is it just that you two don’t have much in common or don’t get along?  Or that you’re not getting what you need from him?  

I truly believe that you can hash out a decent working relationship with just about anyone if you start from a place of mutual respect and wanting to achieve the same goal.  Look at your situation through this lens and then ask if you really have a bad manager or a relationship that just needs some priming.  


Adapt to His Tendencies

First things first, try to adapt to your manager’s tendencies.  Most managers assume that they have the right and authority to run their teams they way that they like by virtue of being the manager.  Whether you agree or disagree, it will be the case more likely than not.  So just try to adapt.  But also try to make it work for you.  

Figure out how he likes to communicate and give him the info the way he likes.  Understand how closely he wants to be involved in your projects and how often he wants updates.  You don’t have to be a mindreader, simply ask him.  Ideally, you’d ask these questions at the start of working together, but if that time has passed, still just ask.  But frame your ask in a way that shows you’ve taken the initiative, ask his preference and offer suggestions, giving him something to react to.  

“Hi Rob, do you have a minute?  Since I’ve been on your team, I’m sensing that our communication isn’t as strong as it could be.  How do you prefer to get info from me - email, text or in person?  Also, I want to make sure you’re fully in the loop on my progress.  I can set up a short weekly status meeting for Mondays or shoot you a progress update email every Friday.  Would these work?”

Hustler Tip:  It may seem silly but focusing more on what needs to get done and less on how you get there will generally improve your efficiency and working relationships.  Keep your eyes on the prize.


Be Proactive 

Adapting to your manager’s style should generally improve your relationship with him.  By doing that, you’ve shown that you understand one key, but often unspoken tenet of modern work - that part of your job is to make his easier.  

If you’ve done this and you’re hitting a roadblock, be proactive about trying to get around it.  Again, remember part of your job is to make his easier, so figure out where he’s still having an issue with you or your style of work and try to address that.  

If, for example, your manager tends to not share details with you in a way that impacts your ability to do good work, be proactive about getting updates.  He might just be excited and want to share as soon as he knows or he might tend to hold things close to his chest until things are final, or could even just forgetful.  He may not come seek you out for certain updates but if you create the avenue for him to share, he likely will.  

If you’re leading a project and he has the tendency to announce big news on that project in front of the larger team, try to connect with him earlier.  Set up a touch base before the team meeting. 

“Rob, we have our Project X team meeting tomorrow and I wanted to connect with you beforehand.  This is my proposed agenda.  The goal of the meeting is to get status updates from all of the key teams, to decide on a final venue for the director meeting, and to solidify the projected budget.  Is there any news from your end that you’d want to share with the team?”


Ask for Feedback

If you’ve tried adapting to his style, being proactive, and you’re still hitting a wall, it’s time to ask him for feedback on how you’re doing.  Although you may be trying your best, your manager may be perceiving your actions and behaviors in a way that is counter to who you really are or the reputation you are trying to create.  You may see him not sharing info as him just being a jerk, but you may be projecting an image that signals to him that you can't be trusted to keep certain things quiet.  So stop stewing in frustration and ask him how to do better.  

In asking, remember to stay open to the feedback you get, whether positive or negative.  Don’t get defensive.  Your goal is to understand what he sees in you and incorporate that into modifications to help you grow as a professional.  

Don’t ambush him with your request.  Schedule the time in advance and let him know what you are looking for.  Also, make sure that the feedback is specific so that you understand what you’re doing well and where you may need some work.  

“Thanks for meeting with me Rob.  I wanted to get your feedback on how I’m doing leading Project X.  Have you seen any areas where I can improve?  Do you have any reservations about me leading similar projects in the future?”


Give Feedback

If you are still not getting what you need after all of these workarounds, it’s time to give your manager some feedback.  Notice I said “need” in that sentence, not “want.”  Step back and make sure that what would make you happier is something that you actually need to be effective, not just a matter of your personal preferences.  

It is definitely possible to give your manager feedback in a way that maintains the relationship and gets you to a place where you can do your job most effectively.  It’s best to give this feedback relatively close to the time when you didn’t get his or her full support.  Giving feedback in close proximity to the event means it’s still fresh in his memory; waiting too long will make you seem like you are petty or keeping a running list of perceived slights.  Try to have this conversation after the meeting or at the close of the project.  

Let’s stick with the above example.  You’ve had a pre-meeting with your manager, asked for any pertinent details, and still in front of the team, he announces something important that you should have known.  

First, identify what the real impact of this is on your ability to do excellent work.  Start with impact to the work and the team, then funnel down to impact on you personally.  Again, focus on what you actually need, not just what you want.  Then, try to frame the issue as a challenge for you both to conquer, not as something that’s his fault.

“Hey Rob, I wanted to chat with you to see how you thought the meeting went today.  I really love leading this project.  From the very outset, I sensed from some members of the team a little resentment that I am the one in charge so I’ve been very intentional about appearing very buttoned up so that they can feel confident in my ability to lead this project and get everything done.  When you share big updates for the first time at the team meeting, it doesn’t allow us to make the most productive use of everyone’s time since the discussions weren’t adequately planned into the agenda.  Personally, it also gives some of the doubters ammo to question my direction and makes us as the leaders seem like we’re not on the same page.  Can we make sure to connect on any big updates before the team meeting?”



I truly believe that you can forge a positive working relationship with just about anyone.  So before you go lamenting an awful manager or looking for a new job, try these steps.  Unfortunately, most people start managing teams before they’ve had any training on how to be an effective manager so learning how to navigate a bad one and create a strong relationship is a skill that will serve you well over and over in your career. 


Still have questions?  Ask away in the comments.  Or share your stories of manager nightmares.