Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

Have you ever had a bad boss? Someone who undermined his team or sabotaged her top-performing employees?

Kellogg School professor Jon Maner studies power-hungry bad bosses. Last month we solicited questions from Kellogg Insight readers via social media. Maner’s answers to several of those questions are below.

“In general, there are really two classes of solutions,” says Maner. “One is fixing the problem. The other is learning how to cope with it.”

How do you cope with an abusive, sabotaging boss when neither of you is likely to leave? My boss is unpredictable, unsupportive, varies from fine and friendly to demeaning and cruel. Short of resignation, what can you recommend?

My best advice is to try to turn an enemy into an ally.

To the extent that the boss is a bad boss because he or she feels threatened, you can really mitigate those feelings by communicating respect to the boss. Even if you don’t feel it deep down, small acts of respect or kindness can be very disarming.

That doesn’t mean suck up. It means giving genuine compliments when you truly think that the boss has done something good. And all bosses—even bad bosses—make some good decisions.

If you can’t change the boss’s behavior, you can at least reduce the impact of it by fostering and strengthening positive relationships with your colleagues and coworkers because they very often have gone through the same thing. However, I wouldn’t do it in a way that would make the boss feel threatened or ganged up on.

Also, it could be useful to communicate your concerns directly with the boss—as long as you do it respectfully and constructively.

If you have a boss who at times is fine and friendly, try to get them in a good moment. Often that might mean getting them outside of the normal work context. You might ease a suggestion into an informal conversation and they might be more willing to hear it then.

How do you deal with a male boss who is threatened by a strong, smart female direct report? I got out, but I wonder what I could have done to have stayed and made the situation better.

One thing to clarify is whether the boss is actually crossing the line in terms of gender discrimination. If they are, then that’s absolutely grounds to communicate with somebody in HR. If they’re not crossing the line—and this is the same advice for male bosses and female bosses—it’s a matter of trying to help the boss not feel threatened. That’s where voicing respect and acting in a kind way can be very disarming.

In these situations you could look further up the chain of command. If your boss has a boss and you feel comfortable talking to that person, you can do that. The risk you run is if that doesn’t provide an immediate solution and your boss finds out about it, it could get ugly. I would only do this as a last resort.

A bad boss I know has a grip on all major decisions. Although his subordinates seem to have responsibilities, the boss often demands work be done in his preferred flavors. How should that be handled?

If the above strategies don’t work, then keep your head down, remind yourself that it’s just a job, and keep your eyes open for other opportunities.

Feeling trapped is no fun, and so focus on things that you can do to prevent yourself from feeling trapped, even if that’s just reminding yourself that that there are other alternatives out there.

How should students applying to an MBA program deal with getting a letter of recommendation from a bad boss?

Just because a boss is bad doesn’t mean that he or she is going to write you a bad recommendation. So the first thing to do, I think, is clarify what the recommendation is likely to look like.

There are a couple of ways to do that. One is to ask the boss. Another is to ask colleagues or former colleagues to find out what kind of a letter of recommendation they’ve gotten from that boss. If there are potential red flags and there is no way to avoid getting a recommendation from that person, what you can do with prospective employers or MBA recruiters is emphasize the lack of fit between the personality styles of you and the boss.

Listen for more advice on handling a bad boss in this Insight In Person podcast.

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