In a column earlier this year, we discussed ways to deal with the Psychopathic Bad Boss ; that is, the supervisor who operates from a position of power and control entirely to his own ends, without thought of the effect on direct reports or the firm. The Bad Boss sees the entire organization as nothing more than a field of resources to be mined for his personal gratification, be it financial, emotional or whatever. This Bad Boss sees no distinction between his own immediate and long term goals and those of the firm, as the two are interchangeable.

For example, I once helped a CFO who was the named successor to the CEO of a billion dollar international company. In the last years before the transition, the existing CEO (who had made some bad investments and was in poor health) began a series of initiatives to sell the company to a competitor so he could cash out stock options, in spite of the fact that there was no interest in selling elsewhere in the organization. My job with the successor was to help him craft ways to neutralize the initiatives without alienating the CEO and survive until the transition. It was plain that the CEO’s motives were entirely unilateral and against the will of everyone else in the company.

But there is another kind of Bad Boss, and although he or she might look evil, and her actions may have exactly the same long term consequences as those of the first kind, she is not driven by the same motives of power, greed, or malicious intent.

This other kind of Bad Boss is incompetent, insecure, frightened, micromanaging. She appears manipulative, controlling, spiteful, unilateral and self-serving. With the incompetent Bad Boss, it is easy to fall into power struggles, passive aggressive behaviors, and spite driven wars of attrition by gossip and back biting. Sometimes, workers try to triangulate authorities from higher levels of the hierarchy- an adult workplace version of “telling Mommy.”

This Bad Boss is driven by a host of poisonous, unspoken, hidden fears of being found out, of being exposed as a fraud. She will be the sponsor of early, inappropriate, or unnecessary initiatives for “change” in order to appear to higher ups like a go-getter, a can-do achiever and powerful leader. Such a Bad Boss will be threatened by competence, and instead of seeing that competence as an asset to be developed for the good of the department, division, or company, will laden the competent worker with excess and meaningless work. Or, the BB will attempt to draw the “offending” worker into a direct power struggle which will then be seen as insurrection.

The thing to remember about the incompetent BB is that they have no real desire to lead, or to work. He is too frightened to lead or work, because that entails the possibility of error, which the incompetent sees as lethal (to him) failure. Better to bind things up in meetings and busy work and pointless initiatives rather to risk and possibly fail … or grow.

The Bad Boss is often not likeable, and thus it is simple to fall into the trap of emotionally disconnecting from him, and then trivializing or scorning him. We love to ridicule our Bad Bosses. Their failures are fuel for our schadenfreude. But allowing these emotions to grow and take us over are the beginnings of a dangerous development in the stewardship of careers. Because, the Bad Boss is acutely attuned to these emotions, and can sense them in others as if they are wearing a garish perfume. And once the Bad Boss senses these emotions in a direct report, that person has made himself a target of the Bad Bosses’ need to rid himself of shame—think of Joaquin Phoenix’ character Commodus in “Gladiator.” He could not stand his nemesis’ Russell Crow’s natural leadership capabilities, and so sought to have him eliminated.

So, we should view our natural, childish need to spite leaders we dislike as a dangerous liability. As tempting as it would be to relish this emotion, we need to arouse our self-defense and be wary of it. Above all, the Bad Boss needs to be managed. And, in a lengthy career, there will be many Bad Bosses, many incompetents, many challenging co-workers and direct reports. And learning how to manage the Bad Boss will also help prevent becoming a Bad Boss.

In protecting himself, and his career, the worker must understand that the already frightened (though the fear remains unacknowledged) Bad Boss cannot be improved by being made more frightened. The Bad Boss must be helped to feel safe. This seems completely counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? The strongest sentiment is that the Bad Boss must be outed, exposed, eliminated. And yet that is exactly the error to avoid. As a matter of fact, all sentiment must be put to one side in dealing with the Bad Boss. If ever there was a time for clear thinking, as opposed to emotional reaction, this is that time.

In dealing with the BB, the worker must first establish what she wants to happen. If she wants to turn over control of her future to an impulsive incompetent who does not care about how things go for her, then she will enter into a war of attrition in a power struggle doomed to fail.

On the other hand, if she clearly sees that nothing good can come of that, then she will set about establishing a relationship in which the BB feels safe. This can be called “a** kissing” or whatever, and is seen as “weak,” but I propose that it be seen as a powerful strategy for the preservation and development of a career. There will always be difficult senior partners, practice group leaders, managers, etc. and having the skills to deal with them will go a long way.

  • Do not take things personally. The Bad Boss is not acting on a plan concocted to make YOU miserable; instead, she is playing an ongoing game of covering her own weaknesses. You have simply wondered on scene while that is going on.
  • The BB is frightened- he can be helped to feel less so by treating him “like a human being” with professional courtesy and respect.
  • Take the BB ‘seriously’ i.e. with a firm grasp of the fact that if a conflict erupts, the BB will win.
  • Adopt the idea that a serious problem is being managed with well thought out strategy, rather than fighting an ego war of attrition that the employee most often loses.
  • Think of the BB as the kind difficulty that causes personal growth and skill development.

James Dolan, M.A., is a professional coach and psychotherapist with 30 years of experience in private practice in the Dallas area. He works with lawyers and physicians in improving their business development, communications, internal relations, and leadership and client-patient retention. His e-mail address is dolan.james@sbcglobal.net.