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How to Survive a Bad Boss

By Mary Brandel
January 23, 2006 12:00 PM ET
Focus on the Work

One survival strategy is to maintain an unwavering focus on the work that needs to be done rather than letting your energy be drawn into the vortex of a toxic personality. That's the tack McQuiston took. "It was absolutely uncomfortable, but my overarching principle was to keep my motivation pure," he says. "We had our work cut out for us, and the more I focused on that, the fewer cycles I had to get involved in gossip. When people start going with that negative energy, it goes the wrong way."

As he focused on the work, McQuiston soon found the group looking to him for leadership, and when his boss was given six months to find another position, McQuiston was asked to lead the system conversion.
John Wade, CIO at Saint Luke's Health System
John Wade, CIO at Saint Luke's Health System
Image Credit: Scott Indermaur
Hunker Down

Similarly, when John Wade, now CIO at Saint Luke's Health System Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., started his first IT job, at Polaroid Corp., he soon discovered the downside of his boss's personality. Though extroverted and a master politician with his peers and superiors, the boss was passive-aggressive and unsupportive of his team.

"You felt like you were just floundering," Wade says. But while the three people on the team commiserated among themselves, they considered it politically unwise to take their complaints outside their circle. "We didn't try to end-run him because we figured his boss must think he's doing a good job," Wade says.

Wade wanted to continue working at Polaroid, so instead of suffering in the shadow cast by this manager, he determined to let his capabilities shine through to anyone who might notice. "I figured, 'This guy isn't going to help me; I have to redouble my efforts to be successful and outperform on my own,'" he says.

Eventually, after a change of management at the company, the boss was transferred to a different department. The replacement manager was tough, Wade says, but a guy who inspired his team to give 110%.

While taking this "hunker down" mentality, it helps to minimize interactions with the boss, except when you know the exchange will be a positive one. "It's possible to have a functioning relationship with your manager that involves only a minimum of interaction," says Scott Berkun, an independent project management and product design consultant. "As long as you and your manager agree on your goals, how you go about getting your work done shouldn't matter."

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