Reverse Inspiration: 3 Ways to Work With A Bad Supervisor

About a week ago I had a coaching client ask me an interesting question. It is not the first time I have been asked this question, nor is it always framed in the same way, but the root of the question is this:

“What should a person do if they think they are better qualified than their boss?”

Other times this question is asked the word “qualified” may be exchanged for smarter, more effective, more energy, more effective, better…  I think you get the idea.

Most of the time the person is asking this question because they are frustrated with some level of competence their supervisor is exhibiting and questioning the value the supervisor brings to the organization. Sometimes the person asking this question is a bit immature, but other times, I have to be honest, I wonder myself if I am coaching the wrong person.

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Intersection of Questions

I have been reflecting recently over my own career after a speaking engagement at a leadership gathering a few weeks ago. The person who asked me to speak said they were as much interested in my life journey as any leadership theory I might want to present.  I was told that the audience wanted to hear how a poor kid from Peoria, Illinois who went to pharmacy school ended up as an executive coach working with top leaders across several different disciplines. How does that even happen?  

I have asked my self this question many times.

Last week I was sitting on my patio enjoying a cup of coffee and watching the sun come up. I was having some really great quiet time in meditation prior to going to my exercise class when the question about an incompetent boss and my own leadership journey were rolling around in my head at the same time.  

As these questions percolated together I realized how blessed I was to have had so many great bosses throughout my life.

I don’t say that lightly - I really worked for some great women and men who taught me many valuable lessons that helped develop that poor kid from Peoria into a guy who speaks into the ear of many great leaders today.

What an honor and a privilege it is to have worked with such great leaders, both as an employee and as a coach.

Except One

Over the course of these 30 some years of work I really only had one supervisor who…well…lets just say was hard for me to respect.

As I am reflecting on the question I was asked by my client, the emotion of how frustrated I was at the time all came flooding back to me:  

  • I was annoyed at how selfish this person was, grabbing all the credit for the work the team had done. 

  • I was discouraged by the lack of empathy and compassion that was shown.

  • I was embittered by how aggressive every conversation was.

  • I was disheartened and resentful by how much joy was received in putting others down.

I have told this story to several of my clients over the years to show them some empathy and let them know they are not the only ones who experience this struggle.

While relating to their struggle helps us to connect and build trust, what my clients really want to know is “What did you do? How did you handle it?”

Ultimately, I left the organization and started this coaching and leadership development practice focused on emotional intelligence. I realized I couldn’t get my boss to change, and I wanted to do something to help other leaders who didn’t always connect well with subordinates, or had changes they wanted to make in their approach but they didn’t quite know how.  

And although that is how my story ended, here are three things I tried to focus on while I still had to report to my “Bad Boss”:

  1. Maintain Confidence.  It was important for me to remember that someone in the organization had hired me. In fact, most people get interviewed by a lot of people before they get a job. Not only did my hiring boss like me, but a whole group of other people did as well. I also had to cling to my past performance. I was fortunate enough to have been really successful in my company and that success had been recognized by many of the folks I worked with and for. Remembering those truths helped me to remain confident despite the difficulty.

  2. Ascertain My Accountability. Most of us who find ourselves working with a boss who doesn’t get us will go into defensive mode to protect ourselves, especially those top performers who get a lot of personal satisfaction of achieving and getting things done.  As a result, you may find yourself with a boss who wants you to socialize more or slow down and think more before acting.  It is important to recognize that even you, over achiever, will  have ups and downs in careers; good days and bad days. It is really hard to maintain any kind of peak performance over a long run. Some of you who have been recognized your entire life may have to step back and ask yourself what your role is in this dysfunction.  I found myself constantly asking, “What am I supposed to be learning here?”

  3. Monitor Stress. There are three main points inside of this thought. First is to make sure you are taking really good care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is critical to raise your stress tolerance level so you do not have a meltdown at the wrong time. Second is to become more flexible in how you see your boss.  If you are really serious, then perhaps it is time to get more playful? If you always come in to work and go straight to your desk, maybe you pop in to your bosses office to say hello and strike up some small talk.  You have to flex your approach, because clearly what you are doing now is not working. The third thing is keep an optimistic outlook. Your career is a long term play. Don’t get impulsive and do something stupid. Think about all the opportunities that await you three or five years from now.  None of us knows the future, so don’t do something crazy in the present that could screw it all up.

I know many of you have stories about working with people you didn't like, respect, appreciate, or esteem. If you have some suggestions on how you got through this and made it to the other side I would love to hear from you.