Fighting with a bad boss

Have you ever felt like your boss is out to get you? Maybe you’re paranoid. But then again, maybe not.

There are a lot of bad bosses out there, leaders who aren’t stupid but lack emotional intelligence. Their self-awareness is strikingly low, they’re clueless when it comes to reading people, they can’t control their emotions and their values seem to be on a permanent leave of absence.

These dissonant leaders are dangerous. They derail careers and blow up teams. They destroy people – sometimes overtly, sometimes slowly and insidiously. Over time we can find ourselves in perpetual, all-consuming combat with these bosses.

It’s tiresome, really, but we can’t help ourselves. It feels like a fight to the death. That’s because fighting with a powerful person – like a boss – sparks a deep, primal response: fear. After all, these people hold our lives in their hands – the keys to our futures, not to mention our daily bread.


So what can you do?

1) First, protect yourself. Conflict with one’s boss usually backfires. That’s because our many cultures place huge value in the official hierarchy: The higher you are, the more “right” you are assumed to be – especially by people even higher up. So, if you must fight, be sure you have a strategy to protect yourself from the fallout. For example, you want to be sure you’ve prepared key people to support you if things go wrong. You also probably want an “exit strategy” to get out of the conflict. You can then decide to act on this long before real damage has been done.

2) Second, focus on yourself. Make sure that you’re not picking a fight with your boss just to prove something, or cover up your own insecurity. You’ve got to be squeaky clean: Fight only for goals that help everyone, not just you.

3) Third, know that your boss’s issues – not yours – are driving this dysfunctional conflict. These bosses are unstable, insecure, power-hungry demagogues. They are often narcissists. They need help – and, frankly, compassion. Unless you truly understand that these individuals are broken, you can end up joining the fray, blaming yourself, or playing the victim. Rather, you want to focus on building healthy relationships where you can (perhaps with your colleagues or your boss’s boss), doing your job well and finding ways to be creative.

4) Fourth, evaluate your situation realistically. Fighting at work is nasty. Fighting with one’s boss is downright painful. It can kill your spirit and ruin your health. If you are perpetually fighting with your boss, you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s worth it to stay in your job. Sure, we all have a million reasons for staying in a job (this stance is usually fear-based too). If the relationship with your boss can’t be fixed, why not think of all the good reasons to find another job – with a better boss, in a better culture where such fights aren’t tolerated?

%0 Finally, ask yourself: “Am I part of the problem?” Are you perpetuating a fight culture, using power as the means to quietly intimidate or get what you need at the expense of others? Many of our organizational cultures drive us to behave this way. Dysfunctional power dynamics, coupled with an overemphasis on competition, push us to fight rather than collaborate.


(Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Primal Leadership,” with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, as well as “Resonant Leadership” and “Becoming a Resonant Leader.”)

© 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate