Problem Bosses: They Come in All Sizes, Shapes and Styles—and Everybody Thinks That He's Got One

updated 06/08/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/08/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Kevin is a 28-year-old press operator in a printing company. Carl is his boss, and Kevin isn't happy about it. "He doesn't know half of what I know about running a four-color press," Kevin complains. "With Carl there's only one way to do things, and it's Carl's way.... He causes me so much aggravation that it's starting to affect my home life.... The trouble is, I really like the company. "According to psychologists Peter Wylie and Mardy Grothe, authors of Problem Bosses: Who They Are and How To Deal With Them (Facts on File, $19.95), Kevin's preoccupation is hardly unique. While conducting hundreds of management training seminars during the past decade, Wylie, 43, of Washington, D.C., and Grothe, 44, of Boston, discovered that most managers were more concerned about the people they worked for than about those who worked for them. "Here we were trying to train them to function more effectively as bosses," says Wylie, "and they were saying, 'Why don't you teach this stuff to my boss; he's the guy who really needs this.' Everyone thinks he has a problem boss." Unfortunately it is a problem few employees know how to solve. Wylie and Grothe discussed some of the possibilities with reporter Tom Cunneff.

What is a problem boss?

To paraphrase Tolstoy, good bosses are all alike, but every problem boss is a problem in his or her own way. Good bosses are, among other things, strong but not overpowering, organized but not compulsive, sensitive and caring but not wimpy, ambitious but not selfish. Problem bosses, on the other hand, differ enormously. There are a zillion ways they can drive employees nuts.

For example?

The most common way is simply to avoid confrontation, to avoid sitting down with an employee and talking about problems in the relationship. That makes people anxious. Another is the tendency of bosses to overreact and get angry. The third example is bitching to one's peers rather than addressing a problem directly. And the fourth is a tendency to lecture people and treat employees in a patronizing way.

What makes a good boss?

A good boss is a good listener who hasn't forgotten what it's like to be an employee. The most frequent complaint we hear from employees is that bosses don't care what they think. They say, "I've got a lot of ideas, but my boss doesn't pay any attention." To be a good boss, you have to be good at relationship management as well as organization management. If you read a lot of books that have been written about managing people, you get the impression they're saying, "Let's keep personalities out of this." The problem is, you can't.

Why are there so many problem bosses?

It's like being a parent. As a society, we don't really do anything to prepare people to be parents, nor do we do much to prepare them effectively for the job of becoming a boss. Most people do not know how to handle positions of power and, in fact, aren't chosen as bosses because of their ability to manage other people but for other reasons, such as technical skills, advanced degrees or knowing the right people.

Don't management courses help?

A little, but there aren't many practical courses where the boss sits down with someone who plays the employee and is rated on his or her listening or problem-solving abilities. Most management courses are much more likely to concentrate on financial and administrative stuff. Look at the tremendous care that's taken with the preparation of airline pilots. They're trained and trained to meet all types of emergency situations, and as a result they have an incredibly low accident rate. We don't devote that same kind of effort to instructing bosses, and the consequences are severe. People's lives aren't lost, but the cost in other ways is astronomical, both in terms of diminished job performance and in the personal toll of stress and unhappiness.

Aren't employees part of the problem, too?

Yes. Any relationship that's successful requires hard work and devotion on the part of two people. Any relationship that fails is a consequence of failure on both sides.

Are female employees better at managing male bosses?

In general, yes. From earliest childhood, women are more relationship-oriented than men. While boys are playing with Erector Sets and war games, girls are often playing with dolls. As they grow older, they're more concious of what it takes to manage a relationship. But one tremendous problem for female employees is the way male bosses engage in sexual extortion in one way or another. It goes on with far greater frequency than all of us realize.

How should an employee handle sexual advances from her—or his—boss?

The first thing you need to do is determine whether your boss is just flirting or clearly interested in a romantic relationship, especially when he's married. When you're talking about real pressure to come across sexually, women should get evidence of it somehow. If it has to be gathered surreptiously with a tape recorder, so be it. Then go to that person and confront him with it and say, "If it doesn't stop immediately, the roof is going to come down. I'm gonna send a copy to your wife, your boss, equal-opportunity authorities." If that doesn't work, follow through with your threats. It's a high-risk move, but what are the alternatives? You succumb or you quit, neither of which we recommend.

What are some strategies for dealing with problem bosses?

Many times a problem boss is simply someone with a different personality than yours. And rather than lose sleep over it, maybe you should just accept your boss's right to be different. But if you feel it's necessary for your boss to change, sometimes the best way is to change yourself in some small way first. For instance, if your boss is a compulsive neatnik and you're a slob, you might clean up your act a little. In general, just take a look at who you are and how you're contributing to whatever problem exists. A slightly riskier strategy would involve talking to your boss directly about your relationship. If you decide your boss is a good candidate for this, then you need to have a performance-improvement session, where you draw him out on what he can do and what you can do to make your jobs less frustrating.

How do you overcome the fear of criticizing your boss ?

If giving your boss feedback is a little too scary, start by asking him or her to give you feedback in the areas of your job in which you can improve. You've stuck your foot in the water, and you've also upped the probability that your boss will say, "What can I do for you?"

How can you be sure a boss will keep his end of the bargain ?

If you've agreed to do some things differently, start doing those things right away, that's going to have a reinforcing effect on your agreement. And as soon as your boss does something that he said he'll do, make note of it by thanking him.

What if serious problems persist?

There are lots of bosses out there who require employees to do unethical or even illegal things. There are moments of truth in the lives of employees when we want them to stand up to bad bosses. The final act, of course, is "firing" your boss—quitting. If you've tried some things and they don't seem to be working, get out of there. There are lots of unhappy relationships that go on far longer than they have to. It's important to say, "Hey, I'm not going to put up with this anymore."

When is it a good idea to quit?

When the boss is profoundly affecting either your productivity or your sense of satisfaction and you feel there is nothing you can do to improve matters. After that, the most important thing about quitting is to know where—and to whom—you are going. People often take another job too quickly and find that their new boss is even worse than the old one. They never take the time to do boss selection. They take another job because the work is what they're trained for or what they like to do.

Isn't the work you do more important than your boss?

They're both important, but here's the problem: When most people take a job, they're thinking about the work 100 percent. It's a critical mistake. It's not the work that keeps people in a job most of the time; it's the boss. The No. 1 thing people need to remind themselves of is that you're going to be working with somebody who is not only going to affect the quality of the work you do, but also the satisfaction you get and how happy you are in it the rest of your life.

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