Skip to main content

When a boss leaves something to be desired, whether in terms of competence or character, you can manage the predicament in a number of ways.

"The adage that people leave bosses, not companies, turns out to be absolutely true," says Robert Sutton a professor at Stanford University and author of 'The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.'

"It doesn't matter if you work for one of the best or worst companies, you can get a bad boss anywhere."

Story continues below advertisement

The easiest move may be to quit, but for many, this just won't be a viable option. Mortgages, bills, and other family expenses need to be taken care of. And during the recent economic downturn, there have not been many places to search for another boss.

Robert Sutton, said there are several options that employees can consider if they are in a situation where the boss is bad but the only choice is to stick it out.

These can range from passive to aggressive, depending on the situation.

A passive approach, said Sutton, is emotional detachment in which there doesn't seem to be a way out or a way to mitigate the situation. Rather than fight the boss, you simply have to learn how to not care.

"Not letting it touch your soul is one of the most important coping mechanisms," he said during a recent interview.

For people unwilling or unable to ignore the problem, Sutton presents the more proactive approach of making the best of a bad situation by trying to help a boss improve. This can come in the form of direct help or behind-the-scenes activity.

One of Sutton's examples was a Silicon Valley start-up plagued by a boss who was incompetent. Despite that, the company continued to do remarkably well because the group around him rallied together to take an unusual approach.

Story continues below advertisement

The team of employees tried to be constructive by providing the boss with the necessary resources and guidance to stop him from making major mistakes. At the same time, they are keeping the company's best interests in mind by not inviting the CEO to certain meetings, and keeping him away from investors and key clients.

"It is a case which is in some ways beautiful and some ways not," Sutton said. "None of them are happy but they want [the company]to succeed no matter what, and it's doing pretty good. That is the most constructive response to an incompetent boss you can't get rid of. "

A more drastic approach is trying to solve the problem by taking on the boss. Sutton said anyone planning on using this plan of attack needs to do two things - document everything about their boss' behavior, and create a coalition so that if things come to a head, one person won't be alone in the ring.

No matter how you go about trying to solve the problem, ensure that you keep your job as secure as you want it to be.

Special to the Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is a principal with ME Consulting, a content and social media strategic and tactical consultancy that creates and delivers 'stories' for companies looking to capture the attention of customers, bloggers, the media, business partners, employees and investors. Mark has worked with three start-ups - Blanketware, b5Media and PlanetEye - so he understands how they operate and what they need to do to be successful. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshUniversity and meshmarketing conferences.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to