What If Your Boss Really Is a Jerk?

Earlier this month I had the privilege to conduct a webinar for Accounting Today and Accountingfly on the topic of Developing Superstars: A Playbook for High-Potential Young Talent and the People Who Manage Them. (The webinar is available on-demand here). As always, at the end of the presentation I gave out my email address and offered to answer any questions that we didn't have time to address in the Q&A. Well, one topic I touched on clearly hit a nerve, because within minutes my in box was flooded with requests to elaborate on the topic of "what to do if your boss really is a jerk." Given all of the (unfortunate) demand for the topic I thought I would address it here as well.

Six Subtle Types of Jerk Boss Behavior

There's no question that the yelling, screaming, abusive jerks are the worst, and they can be very painful and difficult to deal with. Before we look at them more closely, let's consider the six more subtle types of jerk boss behavior and how to apply to each type the withering medicine of rationality, orderliness and professionalism.

As you read the following scenarios, remember that most bosses don't want to act like jerks. But despite their best intentions, most bosses slip into one of these common scenarios at least once in a while. The question is, what can you do to manage your boss so well that you help your boss avoid such behavior as often as possible?

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.

This is the single most common jerk boss scenario. Almost all bosses slip into this scenario, at least once in a while, unless they are ever vigilant.

The real problem is that you rarely see this one coming until it is too late. You think, "This has been going on for weeks... Why didn't you say something sooner, before it became damaging and costly?"

How does this scenario occur? Instead of engaging in regular and consistent "problem-solving," this boss considers conversations about problems difficult, and tends to avoid them. If small problems are dealt with at all, they are dealt with lightly and in passing, which means these problems are likely to recur.

Sometimes small problems that recur incessantly finally cause you or your boss to explode in an outburst of frustration or anger. Or small problems might become part of the fabric of your work. But some small problems will fester and grow. Over time, they will become large problems. By the time you and your boss are forced to talk through what is now a large problem, it's usually too late for the conversation to do much good. Now a great deal of time and energy -- yours and the boss's -- has to be spent cleaning up the mess. During this time, neither you nor your boss is likely to be at your best. After hours of fixing, salvaging, and cleaning up to get things back on track, you both feel behind on your "real" work. You are both likely to feel demoralized. Sometimes it can be hard to bounce back after handling a difficult problem and start feeling good about the job and the boss again. Sometimes your relationship with that boss might go into a downward spiral.

What can you do to help your boss avoid this jerk boss scenario?

Every step of the way, keep your eyes out for problems of any kind related to your own work and everything that might affect your work. Talk through your work in detail with your boss. Ask your boss for clear honest feedback about every aspect of your performance.

Think of everything you do and every move you make in your work with this boss as part of a process of continuous improvement. Constantly search for small problems to solve and small improvements that can be made. Keep asking, "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.

This occurs when the boss is focused on appeasing his own anxiety rather than facilitating your successful completion of the work. Sometimes he wants to look over your shoulder every five minutes. Sometimes he wants you to adhere to an unnecessary schedule of deliverables. Sometimes he wants you to follow unnecessarily narrow specifications or an unnecessarily prescribed method.

Don't get me wrong: A boss's close scrutiny of your performance is not jerk-boss behavior. Nor is a boss's requirement that you follow a schedule of deliverables, narrow specifications, or a prescribed method. What makes the behavior jerk-bossy is when the boss insists on imposing idiosyncratic choices for personal rather than business reasons. The problem is that you will usually have a very hard time making that determination.

What can you do to help your boss avoid this jerk boss scenario?

Every step of the way, work with your boss to spell out the parameters of every task, responsibility, and project you are doing. Sketch out a project plan, a schedule of deliverables, all the specifications, a step-by-step plan of action. If there are standard operating procedures or best practices in place for any of the work in question, have them at the ready and walk through them with the boss to explain exactly what you are going to do and how you are going to do it and why. Then plan to report to the boss at regular intervals, daily or weekly, to keep him apprised of your progress.

If the boss insists on giving you his idiosyncratic, personally chosen schedule, specifications, and methods, make sure you talk them through with him, pointing out any deviations from standard operating procedures and best practices. Gain clarification about exactly what you are being instructed to do and how you are being instructed to do it. Take detailed notes. Go back to your desk and turn those instructions into a project plan, a schedule of deliverables, specifications, and a step-by-step plan of action. Make copies for your boss. Plan to report back to at regular intervals, daily or weekly, to keep the boss apprised of your progress.

This approach should keep your boss's anxiety at bay and give him increasing trust in you and your work.

JERK BOSS SCENARIO #3. Your boss starts treating you like a beck-and-call-assistant.

This is the boss who never gives you your own tasks and responsibilities, but rather keeps you around for one tiny errand at a time. Whenever you are within reach of this boss, you begin to feel like a marionette, being pulled this way and pushed that way: "Hand me this, hand me that. Call so-and-so. E-mail such and such. Pick up this, deliver that."

What can you do to help your boss avoid this jerk boss scenario?
Every step of the way, try to get your boss to give you as many different to-do items as possible in each individual interaction. Your goal is to get her to give you lists of to-do items and larger, more complex tasks so that you have longer and longer timeframes in which you can work independently.

That means you need to keep a pad of paper and a pen (or an electronic tool) handy at all times. Every time your boss engages with you in order to give you an assignment, try to keep the conversation going by asking, "OK. I've got that. Then what?" Try to get more responsibility for larger recurring tasks by paying close attention, asking good questions, taking notes, and learning all the steps. That way, when the larger task recurs, you will recognize it in the boss's initial small-step instructions and you can anticipate the boss's need: "You want me to do a, b, c, d, e, and f, right?"

This approach should help your boss give you a little more space in which to do your work smarter, faster, and better, without pulling your strings the whole time.

JERK BOSS SCENARIO #4. The boss starts pretending things are up to you when they are not.

Sometimes the boss is afraid to take charge and doesn't want to boss you around. Sometimes he doesn't want to take the time to explain exactly what is up to you and exactly what is not. Sometimes he doesn't know exactly what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.

You can usually sense this scenario unfolding when you hear the boss say, "Take a crack at it. Do it however you think it should be done." Ask yourself, "Hmmm... is it really up to me what I do and how I do it?" If the answer is, "probably not," then you had better ask!

What can you do to help your boss avoid this jerk boss scenario?

Every step of the way, 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 whether there are any checklists. Ask for examples and work samples on which you can base your work. If none of these tools are available, then make your own plan, your own to-do list, and your own checklist, in writing, and run it by the boss before starting the work. Explain, "This is exactly what I'm going to do and exactly how I am going to do it." That way, you can avoid wasting a lot of time and effort doing the wrong work in the wrong way.

JERK BOSS SCENARIO #5. The boss isn't keeping track of what's going on, but makes big decisions that affect everyone.

Sometimes the boss is uninformed -- or misinformed. Sometimes the boss has no idea what she doesn't know.

Don't get me wrong: The fact that a boss shows up suddenly and makes a big decision that affects everyone doesn't make the boss a jerk. Nor does the fact that she may be uninformed or misinformed. What makes the behavior jerk-bossy is when the boss makes little effort to keep track of who is doing what where why when and how, and then makes big decisions anyway!

What can you do to help your boss avoid this jerk boss scenario?

Every step of the way, keep your boss informed, and be a very reliable source of honest, accurate, complete information. Be the boss's eyes and ears on the ground and report to her regularly. Keep her apprised of exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, how, where and when. Report any important information you think she should know. But make sure you are not gossiping and tattling on coworkers -- talk only about the work. If your boss is uninformed or misinformed, then become a consistent, but always purely professional and businesslike, source of information about what work is being done, by whom, why, 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.

Sometimes the boss is uncomfortable with his/own authority. This is the boss who says, "Don't refer to me as your 'boss.' We work together. You don't work 'for me.' We are colleagues... partners."

Sometimes this boss builds false rapport based on effacing the authority component of the relationship and pretending to have a friendship. Sometimes the boss wants to feel like "one of the gang."

Building a friendly rapport with his direct reports does not make the boss a jerk. What makes the behavior boss-jerky is when the friendly rapport is fake and the boss becomes authoritarian as soon as the work gets serious.

What can you do to help your boss avoid this jerk boss scenario?

Every step of the way, acknowledge the boss's authority and power in your working relationship. Help him build authentic rapport with you by talking about the genuine terrain you have in common: the work you do together. Every time your boss tries to shoot the breeze about personal stuff, talk about the work. Ask for guidance, direction and support. When he says, "Don't refer to me as your 'boss,''' remind him that "gosh, actually, you are my boss and that matters a lot." Talk about your goals and deadlines, your projects and plans; talk about your performance and what you can improve; talk about your training needs and work conditions; talk about your career aspirations. Remind him of how much authority and influence he has when it comes to your career and how much you appreciate his support.

JERK BOSS SCENARIO #7. The boss is intimidating, mean or abusive.

Sometimes this boss yells and screams, threatens, makes insults, uses violence. Why?

Some bosses have anger control issues. Some just revel in being at the top of the heap. It makes them feel important. It's the workplace version of schoolyard bullying. It is also irresponsible and damaging.

What can you do to help your boss avoid this jerk boss scenario?

First, remember that this is the boss's psychological problem, not yours. Remember the advice from the television executive and the investment banker: Stay professional. Never blink. Never raise your voice. Get your marching orders and go about your business. And keep detailed notes: dates, times, and concrete examples of what the boss did and said.

The real question in this situation -- and it's true for all of the jerk boss scenarios -- is this: Has the boss's behavior been so "jerky" that it's obvious to both of you? Is there an "episode" or a pattern of behavior and a series of episodes that you and your boss can discuss? If so, try to get your boss to discuss what happened, acknowledge it, and give you clear instructions for what you should do if it happens again. Of course, you risk angering your boss. You might even be putting your job on the line. But if you really can't keep working for this boss under these circumstances, you might consider this approach.

If it is an ongoing problem that you really can't handle, and you don't want to -- or can't -- walk away, you might have to take a big chance: After you have compiled a detailed record of the abuse, you might need to report the behavior to senior management or HR or EEO or the legal department. But it's best to avoid this if you can.