How to handle a bad boss

How to handle a bad boss

According to a global study by The Potential Project, 77% of leaders believe they’re doing a great job; and yet 65% of employees said they’d forgo a payrise to see their leader fired.  Yes actually fired.

Have you recently had an interaction with your leader that was underwhelming, unimpressive or downright unacceptable?  

Felt some solidarity with that 65%?

Many of the leaders that I mentor and coach are experiencing a bad boss more and more frequently.  One or two of them, if they are honest with themselves, might be guilty of it sometimes too.

Let’s call this a bad boss moment, and let’s do something about it.

Why does a good boss turn bad?

These are stressful times – and there will be more to come.  

Moments like these make us feel like our back is against the wall – we feel defensive, anxious or scared – and it often shows. 

The thing is you, your team and your boss are all feeling the same way.  So you’re likely to spark each other off and you’re likely to deflect blame – typically upwards.

Why do we blame leaders more?

As leaders we are expected to rise about petty things like emotion.  We are told to control ourselves and to hold ourselves to a higher account than those around us. We sure get paid more, so we sure have to earn it at times like these. 

Even as a leader, or maybe especially as a leader, we find it really hard to forgive our boss when they fall off that pedestal.

So what can we do about it?

Use compassion:

Why have they had a bad boss moment? How are they feeling? How can you alleviate that rather than contribute to it?  What’s going on with their boss (bet it’s worse!) What does he/she need to return to normal? 

Think strategically:

What’s really at play here? What do they really want to happen (because just upsetting you is pointless and unlikely to be their true motive).  What threats are they perceiving and how might you present to them as unthreatening? 


When people are frustrated or overwhelmed, they articulate what they need really poorly.  Think of how often parents say ‘use your words’ to a toddler that’s getting red in the face.  And faced with a frustrated leader, many of us tend to shy away or shut down.  Yet this is the time to lean in and confirm your understanding.  Affirmation not only reduces miscommunication in times of ambiguity and stress, but also makes your boss feel heard and increasingly confident that you’ve got this.  

Be objective:

Step back from your own emotions for a moment (‘go high’ as Michelle O would say) This is unlikely to be about you personally.  It’s more about them.  By looking at the situation from more of a distance, you can observe their behaviour until it feels less threatening.

Get proactive:

You can’t control their reaction to the situation, but you can control your own.  Put some structure around your interactions so you feel less on the back foot all the time – ask them structured questions and tell them what your plan is before they get going.

Show leadership:

A leader is a leader.  Heirarchy b’damned.  If you need to lead a fellow human being out of a bad situation where they are not coping, then go ahead and do it.  

Be human; 

Shake off that view that ‘they know what’s going on” and ‘they have the authority”.  This simply isn’t true in business any more.  As a leader yourself I imagine you already knew that one.

Hold the mirror up:

Bosses are human – we’re all human and we all have off days. If you’re thinking ‘that was my boss last week’ I’m not surprised.  But are you sure it’s your boss that I’m talking about and not you?

As we continue to be tested by this ‘annus horribilis’ it’s probably time to re-set our relationship with hierarchical leadership and instead ask ourselves how we chose to lead, and apply this decision to everyone equally.

We’re in this together.

>>What are you doing to manage the ‘bad boss’ moments?

Rebecca is a leadership and talent expert on a mission to help HR transform business.

She’s passionate about helping leaders and their teams to enhance their impact in uncertain times.Head over to or speak to me if you want to:

  • Level Up your Leadership team
  • Rethink Talent for Today
  • Conduct People Change that works

BoldHR™ – doing business differently – facilitator, coach, mentor, advisor


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