Horrible bosses aren’t just in the movies. How many times have you heard someone complain about a bad boss? Almost everyone has worked with one at some time in their careers. Type in “bad boss” on Google and you get 356 million hits. It’s an awful situation to be in, if you have one.

Not surprisingly, bad boss behavior is really harmful. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says 77% of employees receive significant stress symptoms from a bad boss. Research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology shows that negative leadership behavior produces lower employee morale and emotional distress.

How do you handle a bad boss? First, consider that you can’t change the person. For whatever reason, your boss is unable to lead people well. Yet, the reality is that many companies keep terrible bosses if they achieve their numbers or have personal relationships with key clients or executives. Second, you can only control and change how you respond. If you need or want to keep the job, don’t allow yourself to be a victim or whine about the situation. While it isn’t necessarily easy to tolerate what’s happening, here are six proven methods you can use to train that horrible boss and minimize your suffering.

  1. Control yourself –You spend way too much time at work to let a bad boss ruin your career or family life. You start to handle a bad boss best by working on yourself first. Center yourself by doing an honest self-inventory about your strengths and areas to improve. Are you sure it isn’t you that has a problem? If it’s the boss, find some personal ways to let off steam: relaxation, exercise, talking with others or taking strategic timeouts. Take the high road, treat your boss with respect, learn to do a great job or at least a better job. Why does this matter? If you do your job above reproach, you lessen your bad boss’s impact on your work performance, and you will feel better about yourself.
  2. Clarify priorities – Ask your boss for a meeting to clarify his or her expectations. Take notes. Create a plan, with goals and action steps for your responsibilities. Then present it and ask for input. Listen and make appropriate adjustments. Why will this help? You are minimizing misunderstandings about what has to be done and why. The incompetent boss will often be delighted with your initiative, sparing them that necessity. Nearly all bosses will appreciate this approach because it saves them time and effort.

  3. Communicate upward – Most bad bosses, especially the tyrants, hate surprises. Regularly let your boss know what’s going on: email, meetings, casual update. One of my coaching clients had a obsessive data-driven manager who sent long emails at all hours. Other employees became overwhelmed and started complaining to one another. This caused them serious backlash from him. My client managed his boss with good follow-up on key priorities. It provided him lots of space his co-workers never received.

    However, don’t overdo the communication; learn the timing and process that seems to work best for your boss. By doing this you will also learn other information that will help you help your boss look good. Why is this helpful? This isn’t “brown nosing” here. You are specifically checking in to keep your boss off your back and to make a tough situation better for you. A common mistake in dealing with bad bosses is avoiding or retreating from them. This just adds to your trouble.

  4. Confront strategically – The book, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, by Wess Roberts, provides a clue for a dealing with a horrible leader. Be principled, but don’t be stupid. If you fight a bad boss on everything you most likely will lose. One manager I worked with took no gruff from anyone and had some serious arguments with his no-nonsense manager. While my friend made his points, he also lost his job when he could ill afford to do so. Pick your fights and confront positively, with key data and plans to support your point of view. Document your concerns when communicating with a bad boss, and keep a copy. How does this help? You will gain the boss’s respect, you maintain your integrity, and you have a record.
  5. Consult others – Discreetly talk to other people you work with. How do they experience your boss? Is it just you? What’s working for them? What isn’t working? How do others handle situations like yours? Do this to broaden your perspective and maybe pick up a new idea or two.

    You may consider talking to your boss’s boss. Research the status of their relationship. What kind of leader is this leader? Is she like your boss or is the person approachable? Bring your documentation when meeting with her and refer to it, if it seems like she is empathetic to you. Going over your manager’s head can come back to haunt you. Do this thoughtfully and carefully.

  6. Contact HR – Use this approach if nothing seems to get better. You have to gauge the type of Human Resource team you have. Are they compliance driven or are they employee advocates? If they are compliance driven they will often take the boss’ side, which doesn’t help you. And, bad bosses tend to get resentful. Most often it ends badly for employees. If they are employee advocates you may gain some helpful counsel while they investigate and keep your comments anonymous. Some organizations have employee hotlines coordinated through HR. Research it, before you use it.

You have to determine if can you live in the situation your boss creates. If you can, use these six tips to help. If you can’t, you can always quit to give yourself a chance for a fresh start, but get another job first. Of course, you could wish you worked at Amazon, who recently announced they will pay unhappy employees to leave.

By the way, do you want to learn proven approaches to becoming a “good boss” and increasing employee engagement? If so, I suggest you check out this complimentary eBook: How to Motivate-No-Inspire Employees: 10 Keys to Employee Engagement.

Or, are you going through lots of change at work and want to help yourself or others cope with it better? Then, check out this complimentary eBook: Changing Change Management.