Most of us have had a boss who just didn’t work for us, even though we liked where we worked. So, what do you do when you like the company but want to quit your boss?
Unrealistic expectations from above or an absentee manager can be crushing, but quitting isn’t always the answer. At least not right away. If you are at a good company with a bad boss you should try and make things better. It’s a good career habit to develop and it’s good for the company too.
We have four steps you can try before quitting over a bad boss. After all, the company doesn’t want to lose a good employee any more than you want to look for a new job, so try these first.
Make yourself indispensable
Almost any chance that you can make your situation better is dependent on you being someone that your company cares about. So, be someone they really care about. Do not let a not-so-great boss cause you to become a not-so-great employee.
Be great at your job. Volunteer for projects and committees. Speak up in meetings and be agreeable even though your job doesn’t feel great. Being able to influence something as sensitive as getting your company to provide some insight or coaching or supervision or training for your boss will require that you matter to the company and that you are someone they have no choice but to take seriously.
Make yourself so valuable that they won’t risk not making you happy. Once you’ve worked on yourself, then you can shift your focus to your situation. Remember that if you are an employee that upper management knows and cares about, they will not only want to make sure that they don’t lose you but that they won’t lose the other great employees like you.
Give them a chance
Most people give up on a bad boss too easily. There are a lot of reasons people don’t give their boss the chance they should. First, it’s easy to feel that your boss is supposed to know what they’re doing, and you know, be good at managing you (it’s in the title – manager – right?).
But it’s also often true that we don’t want to tell our boss what we need. We don’t want to be vulnerable and show there are things we don’t understand, or that we need help, or that some small change could make our job a whole lot better. But it is awfully hard for a manager to make things better when they don’t even know something’s wrong
It’s common to be afraid to have honest conversations with your managers, and so bosses don’t get challenged and rarely get good candid input from their team. Sure, bosses can be scary and managers get defensive like everyone else, so it can seem easier to stay on their good side until you can make your escape.
But is this really who you want to be, someone who slinks away in the night? That doesn’t mean this recommendation is easy. There is a skill to telling someone they could be better at something so maybe you should study up before giving sensitive feedback (maybe read Crucial Conversations or Fierce Conversations in order to do a good job).
And finally, if the company really is a good one with some good people, don’t you owe the company a little something in trying to make the place a little better? And what about the other people who work there, don’t you want to leave the place a little better for them? This is a skill you’ll need in any job. You need to be able to influence, persuade and yes, even confront your manager (in a respectful way) and give them a chance to change. They’ll probably respect you for it.
Get to know the things affecting your boss
Guess what, you might not be the only person in the company who has a boss with unrealistic expectations or who won’t support them or who doesn’t set them up for success. If you take the time to step back and look at your manager’s situation, you may find that they have a boss who has stupid and unrealistic expectations of them too.
We all fall prey to a cognitive mistake that causes us to attribute other people’s behavior to their innate personality and not to their circumstances. We often believe that our boss’s poor decision making or counterproductive managerial behavior is because they are stupid or uncaring. We don’t judge their behavior the way that we do our own, taking into account the circumstances affecting us.
A lot of the time you’re probably missing that your manger is responding to their situation and isn’t inherently a shitty person trying to make your life miserable. Make it your goal to understand your boss’s situation and goals.
Even if your boss can’t make your situation better (right away) because it’s out of their control, you two can develop a plan together to make things better. It’s always better to understand the way your boss sees things (even if you don’t agree). Once you figure out what’s influencing them, you can use it to your advantage, and even gain some empathy for them. You’re always more likely to get what you want from someone you treat empathically.
Talk to people of influence without telling on your boss
Another way to get a better perspective on the company and your boss is to talk to people with some real pull in the company, but you should do this one carefully because nobody likes a tattle. And don’t talk to the person you know your boss hates, because that’s just gossip. The purpose isn’t to commiserate but to learn what you might be able to do to take some action and make some change.
Try talking to your boss’s boss, and make your manager look good while you’re at it. Frame the conversation with your skip-level boss around what you need to be more effective, and not what your boss isn’t giving you. This is a hard needle to thread, and may make your manager nervous, so this conversation is usually a last resort (but you were planning on blowing out of there, so it might be time for this conversation).
If your company has a Human Resources department, they can be valuable too. Ask them to set you up with a mentor outside of your department for career development (and not because you think your boss is a dumbass). Then, swear your mentor to secrecy, and ask for help. Chances are they’ve been in your situation and have some pull in the company.
Hopefully one of these things will work, but sometimes no one is listening. You don’t win all battles, and quitting may indeed be the right next step. But maybe you should only get to feel good about throwing in the towel once you’ve really made an effort.
Working on your value to the company, building a relationship with your boss and getting up the courage to challenge them is going to take time, so get started today and put in the hours. If you still coming up empty, you can feel good knowing how hard you tried to make it work and take these lessons with you to your next thing.
John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).