leading an ineffective boss

Is your boss a good person who’s doing a bad job? Many ineffective leaders are. If you scored your boss less than 29 points on last week’s bully boss quiz, you can:

  1. Live with the status quo — but don’t jump on the Bitter Bus and “Cs the day” with criticizing, condemning, and complaining.
  2. Work around your boss and try to avoid him/her as much as possible.
  3. Provide strong leadership within your own team and practice upward leadership.

We’ve long defined leadership as an action, not a position. Strong leaders influence, connect, change, and deliver results regardless of — sometimes in spite of — their formal role or position. That’s especially important in influencing upward to the boss and even further up the organization.

As that Chinese proverb reminds us, “don’t curse the darkness; light a candle.” Strong leaders don’t allow themselves to be victims of a bad boss. Many people lose the “boss lottery” and end up with an ineffective leader. You may not be able to choose your boss, but you can choose how to respond. You can lead, follow, or wallow.

I’ve written extensively on upward leadership or leading your leader. It’s one of our most popular topics. One of my Globe & Mail columns, Five Ways to Deal with a Bad Boss, provided these suggestions:

  1. Strengthen your credibility and relationship — deliver your commitments, take initiative, look for solutions, know what keeps your boss up at night, and leverage your boss’ strengths.
  2. Check your timing and approach — tailor your approach to using facts or feelings, catch the waves of restructuring or shifting priorities, and manage the emotional climate.
  3. Don’t wait, initiate — clarify poor direction he or she might be providing, regularly check expectations and results, and frame discussions within organizational strategies.
  4. Speak up — give (honest) positive feedback, play to his or her strengths, and provide feedback on his or her negative behavior with data or observations without assuming intent, meaning, or drawing conclusions.
  5. Fire a bully boss — if these approaches don’t work and your boss is crossing the line from bad to bullying leadership, don’t be a victim or enabler.

Here’s a summary of key points for leading up from one of the most popular articles on our website, Bad Boss: Learn How to Manage Your Manager:

  • Understand Why Your Boss is Bad
    • Confusing information and communication
    • Micro-management
    • It’s all they know
    • Promoted for all the wrong reasons
    • Overworked and under-trained
    • Feeble feedback


  • Boss Management Strategies
    • See and work the big picture
    • Don’t wait, initiate
    • Set priorities
    • Support your boss
    • Pick your timing
    • Strengthen your credibility
    • Don’t be a victim

For even more practical advice, Upward Leadership: 7 Tactics to Influence Your Boss draws from the Harvard Business Review article “Getting the Boss to Buy In.” Susan Ashford, professor at the University of Michigan, and James Detert, associate professor at Cornell University, report on their study of the most successful approaches to “issue selling” across a range of roles and industries.

If you’ve ever said, “My boss makes me sick!” you might be right. A British study found that stress-induced by a bad boss lowers immune response. It’s easy to be positive when we have an optimistic, supportive, and highly effective boss. When you have a weak boss, upward leadership takes courage, skill, and Emotional Intelligence.