From getting the silent treatment to the general undermining of work, a bad boss can make a great job miserable.

At some point, everyone probably will encounter a bad boss, but experts say there are ways to keep your job and sanity.

Michelle Duffy is the Vernon Heath chair at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. She says there are several ways to think about bad bosses.

“I generally say they are people whose behaviors express disdain, and verbal and non-verbal signs of hostility,” Duffy said. “Their actions eat away at one's sense of self, competence and dignity.”

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A manager who takes credit for others’ work, lies, blames others to save themselves from embarrassment or makes negative comments about one employee to others is someone Duffy would consider a bad boss. Narcissistic bosses also are bad bosses.

“They are bosses who are at first charming, but if you cross them or indicate they are not perfect they are very angry, rageful almost,” Duffy said. “Generally, these bosses have high but unstable self-esteem, so they constantly seek to affirm their worth.”



Duffy studies abusive and undermining bosses in her work. She says there are things an individual employee can do to deal with a bad boss.

“If you have an abusive boss, a natural tendency is to avoid that boss to protect yourself from the above behaviors. That rarely works well,” Duffy said.

In reality, avoiding an abusive boss can actually trigger more abuse. To deal with a manager who is like this, Duffy says an employee needs to switch the power balance.

“You can do this by shifting your dependence off your boss and also by increasing their dependence on you,” Duffy said.

Building up self-reliance can shift dependence from a boss. Asking questions like, “do I need to go to my boss for help with this? Can I go to someone else?” can help with this, Duffy said.

This also aides in building social capital with trusted colleagues.

“This is like building protection for yourself. A coalition is another way to think of it,” Duffy said. “This requires you from day one to also be someone others can trust and work with.”

But perhaps a more effective approach is to shift a boss’ dependence you, Duffy said.

Thinking about how to become indispensable to your boss. Becoming instrumental for their success enhances the value of the employee. “Managing up” or thoughtfully looking for ways to help an employer achieve goals or learning about their preferred work style can help with this.

“If you can build a strong coalition at work and engage in value enhancement behaviors, you will have the best success for dealing with an abusive boss,” Duffy said.

Duffy emphasized that in an ideal situation, the organization or company does not tolerate bad boss behavior.

“If you don't have support, or this bad boss is a star performer in other areas and unlikely to be reprimanded for bad behavior, then at least you may have to think about what you can do personally,” Duffy said.

Employees should not have to leave a good job because of a bad manager, Duffy said.

“Ideally, anyone could walk away from a bad boss, but I am not sure that is realistic economically for many people,” Duffy said.

If someone is tied down with a spouse, children or aging parents, it also can be difficult to relocate.  

“I know sometimes people say ‘just leave, get another job,’ but for most of us, it’s not that easy, and you have to manage the situation you have at least in the short term,” Duffy said. “They shouldn’t have to think quitting is their only option.”