When you work for a bad boss, it is easy to just try to “keep your head down” and do your job. If your boss is merely annoying, this isn’t a bad strategy. Maybe he/she will get replaced someday and the risk of trying to find another job may not seem like it is worth it.
However, I want to suggest that if your boss is really bad, he/she can do a lot more damage to you and to your career than just being an annoyance. Let me tell you a story. The names have been changed to protect the guilty and the innocent, but the facts are real.
Acme Inc. employed about 150 people. One of the assistants there seemed very competent. We will call her Sally. Sally was an above average worker, caught on to things quickly and generally seemed like the type of person who would really help the organization–and for several years she did just that. It wasn’t like she had the Midas touch, but management gave Sally the projects that they wanted to see done with excellence and attention to detail.
Then one day Sally was “promoted”. Instead of being a general assistant, she was made the administrative assistant for John. John was one of the vice presidents–a position he had secured by being college friends with the CEO. His actual management skills were worse than non-existent. He had what I would call “negative skills,” meaning that his “skill-set” usually created more problems than you’d expect with someone who had no skills at all.
At first things looked pretty good. Dealing with John’s previous assistant had been a nightmare for much of the staff, so there was a general consensus that things would be much better now that Sally was going to be taking over the job. For a few months, things seemed to go okay, but then everyone started noticing a change. Sally started taking on a lot of the characteristics of her predecessor.
John saw himself as a “visionary,” which in his mind meant “someone who comes up with ideas but doesn’t do any of the work.” So he’d come up with he very initial idea for a project and then berate Sally for not magically making it happen–even though he hadn’t provided her with the direction or resources to accomplish it. The only way Sally could keep her head above water was to interface with the rest of the organization the same way her boss was treating her, which over time started to involve a lot of yelling and just generally treating people poorly.
At one point, Sally was standing in the hall screaming at another employee to get them to do something Sally had forgotten to do, herself. I wouldn’t fault her for her oversight. She had a tremendous amount of work being dumped on her from her “visionary” boss, but her frustration was being taken out on the person who just happened to be there when she discovered her mistake.
Now here is where the story gets interesting. After several years, John left the organization and Sally moved back into a position similar to what she had before. Most people assumed she’d return to her old self now that John was gone. She didn’t. Instead, she continued in the habits she had picked up from working under John and when she finally quit several years later, the entire staff breathed a sigh of relief at her departure. Over a period of about 7 years, Sally had gone from being the ideal employee that everyone loved to work with to a complete disaster that everyone was happy to see go. What happened? It is very simple. Sally had a horrible boss, he ruined her skills and killed her career. It didn’t matter that he eventually left–the damage had already been done.
My personal involvement with this story? Shortly before John left, a reorganization put me reporting to John. My first thought was to just deal with it. I figured I could learn a lot–even if it was what not to do. After catching myself acting like John on a few occasions, I turned in my resignation. The risk of picking up any of his management “skills” was too great for me to justify staying at the company.
If you have a truly bad boss, don’t wait for them to ruin your career before moving on. It is true that you may be able to resist picking up some bad habits from a bad boss over a short period of time, but if you are continually exposed to it day in and day out, it will take a toll on you. There are some things that are worth enduring through, but a boss that is going to ruin your ability to have an effective career isn’t worth it.