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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET : CHALLENGES OF THE WORKING LIFE : ON THE JOB : DEALING WITH BAD BOSSES : Instead of Just Complaining . . . Consider a Sting Operation, Being More Flexible or Quitting

September 18, 1988|STUART SILVERSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

If your boss ignores, bullies or otherwise abuses you, it's good to:

a) Mutter under your breath, exchange gripes with co-workers and, in general, develop an attitude.

b) Take the problems in stride at work, and then go home and scream at your family.

c) Tell the boss' wife what really happened at the last office party.

d) Find a tactful way to suggest to your boss how your working relationship could be improved.

Congratulations if you picked (d). Although it's a simple idea, management consultants say most people with difficult bosses neglect to take a straightforward, constructive approach to improve matters. "Doing nothing is by far the most common employee strategy," says Mardy Grothe, a Boston psychologist.

Doing nothing, that is, besides suffering, bellyaching and perhaps trying to make the boss look bad. "They hold symposiums at the Pizza Hut about what a lousy guy their boss is," says Patricia King, a New York management training consultant and author of "Never Work for a Jerk."

Fortunately, experts say, there usually are much more effective techniques for dealing with a bad boss. In fact, a growing legion of consultants are lecturing and writing about the topic, often at the request of companies that want their personnel to work together more efficiently.

Employees first ought to size up how bad their situation is. At their worst, bad bosses can degrade you, violate your civil rights and encourage illegal or unethical activities. "If you're working for a demeaning bastard who's out to destroy people, then I think you should quit today," said Christopher J. Hegarty, an executive training consultant and author of "How to Manage Your Boss."

"Unemployment," he added, "is a more intelligent risk than working under someone who is truly demeaning."

Far more common are bosses whose bad habits can be brought under control with some savvy coaxing from a subordinate, a process known among personnel specialists as upward management, upward influence or managing your boss. But before trying that, figure out whether your boss really is the problem.

In your boss' eyes, you could be the problem. Be sure to look at things from your supervisor's perspective and take into account the standards his superiors are using to judge him. "The fact you're unhappy may not mean that much" to your boss' boss, said Jerald Jellison, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Southern California. "Maybe," he added, "the reason you liked the old boss so much was that he allowed you to get away with murder."

If that's the case, you probably need to heed your boss' criticism--or get out.

Part of the trick to getting along with any supervisor is being flexible. If the boss is harried at the beginning of the day, pick another time to raise an issue. If the boss would rather read a memo than talk things over, try that approach even if it isn't your style.

Tact goes a long way, too, in dealing with bosses or, for that matter, employees or anyone else. Even though it's essential to speak up about a problem, you get nowhere when you put people on the defensive by challenging their authority or making a question sound like a personal attack.

Consultants suggest talking about how things might be done differently in the future: When you question a past action, it might sound too much like an accusation. Rather than, say, complain about being excluded from a meeting, ask about being included at the next one.

Also, find time to compliment your boss (or employee). It doesn't sound obsequious, consultants say, to praise a superior if it's for a specific action that deserves a nice word.

If tact doesn't work, you may have to play hardball and go over the boss' head. But be aware of the risks--among them the possibility that your boss is close to his supervisor. "You have to be willing to lose," said Gerda Steele, executive director of the Pasadena Commission on the Status of Women.

To get what you want, it's a big help if you are a top performer and have taken your complaint through the proper channels. Steele said those factors helped her win transfers away from bosses she didn't like twice since going to work for Pasadena nearly six years ago.

"I didn't come in on shaky ground," she said. "I came in on a strong foundation."

Whatever approach you take, don't lose your cool or grumble in public. That likely will get you branded as a troublemaker, reducing your chances of influencing higher-ups to zilch.

"Would you want someone working for you who is quick to blab and complain?" Jellison asked.

Here are some types of bad bosses frequently cited by consultants, along with suggestions on what to do:

Nice-guy bosses. When disputes among employees arise, nice-guy bosses are reluctant to act and afraid to criticize. "The thought of sitting down with an employee and discussing a touchy subject makes them nervous," says Grothe, co-author of "Problem Bosses: Who They Are and How to Deal With Them."

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