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How to Work with a Bad Boss

All good interactions between people are based on relationships.

People go along with people they get along with.

I often teach leaders that it is their responsibility to connect with the people they lead. In an ideal world, that’s the way it should be. But the reality is that if someone is a bad boss or leader, he probably does little to connect with the people.

That means you must take it upon yourself to connect with your boss.

Productive Relationships with a Bad Boss Require flexibility

The key to developing a productive relationship with your boss is good chemistry. Sometimes, that chemistry comes naturally, which makes things easy. However, if it’s not there, you can build it. But you will have to be the one to adapt to a bad boss. That’s what good leaders do, and when you’re working with a leader who can’t or won’t lead, what you’re really trying to do is lead up—positively influence the person above you on the org chart.

Here’s how to get started.

  1. Discover Your Boss’s Passions

Just as a doctor listens to someone’s heartbeat to know that person’s physical condition, you need to listen to your boss’s heartbeat to understand what makes him or her tick.

That may mean paying attention in informal settings, such as during hallway conversations, at lunch, or in the meeting that often occurs informally before or after an official meeting. If you know your leader well and feel he or she would be receptive, you may want to be more direct and ask questions about what really matters to him or her.

All people have dreams, issues, or causes that connect with them. Those things are like the keys to their lives. Think about it from your own point of view for a moment.

  • Are you aware of the things that touch you on a deep emotional level?
  • What are the signs that they “connect” for you?
  • Do you see those signs in your boss?

Look for them, and you will likely find them.

Many leaders are very wary about letting the people who work for them see the keys to their heart because they feel it makes them vulnerable. So don’t approach it casually, and never treat the subject flippantly. To do so would be a violation of trust. And never try to “turn the key” manipulatively for personal gain.

  1. Know Your Boss’s Priorities

People’s “heartbeats” indicate what they love to do. Their priorities show what they have to do—and by that I mean more than just their to-do lists. All leaders have duties that they must complete, or they will fail in fulfilling their responsibility. It’s the short list that your boss’s boss would say is do-or-die for that position. Make it your goal to learn what those priorities are. The better acquainted you are with those duties or objectives, the better you will understand and communicate with your leader.

  1. Understand Your Boss’s Personality

Two staff members were discussing the president of their company, and one of them said, “You know, you can’t help liking the guy.” To which the other replied, “Yeah, if you don’t, he fires you.”

If you want to connect with your boss, you need to be the one who adjusts to your leader’s personality.

It’s wise to understand both your leader’s style and how your personality type interacts with his. If your organization uses DISC, MyersBriggs, Personality Plus, RightPath, or some other personality assessment tool, familiarize yourself with it.

Learn about your personality type. Learn about your boss’s. Study how they fit together and make personal adjustments to how you interact.

Good leaders adjust to their people, but if your boss isn’t a good leader, he won’t. You will have to be the one who needs to be flexible. That can be a challenge if yours is not a flexible personality type! But it will benefit the organization—and help you get along with your boss.

The End Goal is to Build Trust With Your Boss

When you take time to invest in relational chemistry with your leader, the eventual result will be trust—in other words, relational currency.

For years I’ve taught the concept of relational “change in your pocket.”

When you do things that add to the relationship, you increase the change in your pocket. When you do negative things, you spend that change. If you keep doing things that your boss perceives as negative—whether they really are or not—you harm the relationship, and you can eventually spend all your change and bankrupt the relationship.

People with a lot of history who have invested in relational chemistry build up a lot of change in their pocket. As a result, the relationship can weather many problems or mistakes.

Andy Stanley, who is a fantastic leader, said, “Loyalty publicly results in leverage privately.”

That means if you earn your leader’s trust over time by giving her public support whenever you can do so in good conscience, then you will earn the right to speak up privately when you disagree. You will have earned change in your pocket giving you a chance to influence her.

John Maxwell

John C. Maxwell is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, coach, and speaker who has sold more than 33 million books in fifty languages. He has been identified as the #1 leader in business and the most influential leadership expert in the world.

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