Bad Boss BS: “Don’t worry, I’ve sorted that for you.”
What do you do when your boss represents more of a threat than an asset to your work?
We get the term “loose cannon” from naval warfare. A cannon that hadn’t been properly secured could break loose from its station either from the force of recoil or the rocking and rolling of a tumultuous sea and cause a hazard to the sailors — rolling around like a big metal rolling pin. Some bad bosses are loose cannons. The weight they carry from their formal authority, combined with some form of incompetence makes them a danger to us and our work. So how do you deal with this sort danger in daily professional life?
A loose cannon isn’t simply a dead weight.
A loose cannon isn’t simply a dead weight. It’s a dangerous force that can imbalance work, flatten enthusiasm, damage alliances, add unpredictability during unsteady moments and generally make life harder. A bad boss can have this effect on your work for a number of reasons. Like most bad-boss interventions, the key to understanding what we can do to help the situation is to diagnose it. Given what you know of the boss, what are the dangers they pose to your work and progress?
Do they often misunderstand what you’ve said or asked for? Do they take notes during conversations, but then paraphrase of misinterpret these notes adding confusion or complication when they share your work with others? How can you make misunderstandings less likely? You could try providing short summaries of conversations and highlight any important factors or “asks” of the boss.
Or do they brief the same work or project to multiple people? When something is important or at the front of mind, a bad boss might ask multiple people to work on the same thing, often not recognising or communicating the overlaps in the work. This can lead to duplication of effort or complications when multiple actions or solutions overlap. You can mitigate the impact of this by working with your colleagues to define scope and where opportunities exist, work together. On the next update, describe to the boss how you’ve managed the workload to clear up any confusion and set expectations for who is doing what.
There are lots of ways that a bad boss can add anxiety and additional effort to your work. Rather than them being an asset, they become a liability that you need to manage — but when you realise this you can apply the techniques you use to manage any stakeholder. In fact, this is approach will increase your effectiveness even if you have a good boss. This three-item list of considerations is useful for considering any stakeholder.
Manage them like a stakeholder
- Supporter/Opponent — is the boss a supporter or opponent of the work or your approach/recommendations? Do they agree or disagree with your short term or longer term recommendations? If they object, why? And how might you overcome their objections to turn them into a supporter
- Know/Don’t know — what do they need to know to be a useful advocate of the work (or know enough not to make it harder)? Bosses often won’t want all the details. But what’s the vital information and beliefs they need to have grasped in order to mitigate the risk of derailing the work?
- Sphere of activity & influence — what are the key forums and relationships that the boss has access to which can unlock or block progress to the work? Is there a meeting where the work might be discussed? Is there a person that they might meet between meetings that could be an ally or an opponent of the work?
You might notice that this set of questions is a form of why, what, who/how. Whenever I’m trying to catch a murderer I think about motive, means and opportunity. It’s the same with a bad boss. If you fear a bad boss has the potential to metaphorically murder your work, identify the motive, means and opportunity and work to manipulate these to mitigate the risk — and perhaps even make the boss an asset, rather than a liability.
If you’ve had an experience of a bad boss, have a story to share or want advice, you can participate in this series by sending a message to @danramsden or completing this contributor form. I’m hoping to build a community around the experience of bad bosses — and share advice and practical adaptations so that we remain effective. There’ll be at least one post every week. If you have something to share, please get in touch.