How to Survive a Bad Boss

Coping with the monster manager

Bad Boss
Image Credit: Miguel Santamarina
William McQuiston retires this month as CIO at Truman Medical Centers Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., after 41 years in IT. But he still vividly recalls the boss who made his life miserable in the mid-1980s. That difficult period followed his acceptance of a position at a county medical center.

McQuiston was hired to work on a four-person team that was moving one hospital's registration, billing and accounts-receivable system in-house. The team was led by a former PC technician who'd moved quickly up the ranks based on his technology prowess. McQuiston was eager to please his new boss. "I'd been out of work six months, so I was totally elated to have a job and would have done anything for that guy for the simple fact that he hired me," he recalls.

But that was easier said than done. It quickly became apparent that McQuiston's manager was distrustful of the hospital's intentions and paranoid that his newfound power wouldn't last. "Everyone he dealt with he didn't trust," McQuiston says. The boss withdrew and began concealing information from the very people he should have been forming relationships with, including the outsourcing partner, the CIO and the vendor involved in the project.

The situation soured further when McQuiston -- who had 17 years of experience in health care -- became the go-to guy for answering tough systems questions, leaving the manager even further out of the loop. "He turned inward and wasn't doing much management at all," he remembers.

William McQuiston, CIO at Truman Medical Centers
William McQuiston, CIO at Truman Medical Centers
Looking back, McQuiston sees his former manager as a classic example of a specific type of bad boss: the overgrown technologist who gets rewarded for brilliant technical work by being promoted to a position for which he's not qualified. Nearly anyone who has worked in IT is familiar with this all-too-common scenario of a technologically brilliant boss with no management skills. Unfortunately, this is just one of many bad manager scenarios in IT.

Very few people make good managers if they're promoted for the wrong reasons, says Paul Glen, author of Leading Geeks (Josey Bass, 2002), president of C2 Consulting in Los Angeles and a Computerworld columnist. Criteria such as technical capabilities or a domineering personality may lead to managerial positions more often than, say, a desire to help other people. "A good manager finds satisfaction in helping others be productive, not being the most productive person in the room," Glen says.

More bad news: It's highly unlikely that a manager who starts out bad will improve, Glen says. So if you're stuck with a bad boss and don't want to leave your job, what do you do? Here are some tactics that have enabled IT folks to survive despite a monster manager.

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."

As for positive exchanges, he suggests going out of your way to keep your manager happy and even doing things that help him believe whatever he needs to believe, be it that he's always right or that every issue and decision is all about him. "You can view this as a tax on the work, sort of like filling out forms or other administrivia," Berkun says.

Peter Baker, vice president of information systems and technology at Emcor Facilities Services Inc.
Peter Baker, vice president of information systems and technology at Emcor Facilities Services Inc.

The hunker-down approach worked for Peter Baker, vice president of information systems and technology at Emcor Facilities Services Inc., a subsidiary of Emcor Group Inc. in Arlington, Va. Baker once worked as a project lead for a micromanager who interfered with the work of the programmers. Baker advised his team members to stay out of the manager's way, avoid the politics and focus on their jobs.

He also suggested that they take 10 minutes each afternoon to document everything they'd done that day. "I remember sitting them down and saying, 'This guy is always going to come in and ask you, "What about this, this and this?" And you can just pull out your piece of paper and say, "I did that, that and that.'" It was kind of a capitulation, but we turned it into a positive by being proactive."

The technique worked. "He was looking for reasons to [complain], so if you didn't give him any, he'd move on to an easier target," Baker says.

Take Action

Laying low isn't always the best tactic. Sometimes it's better to lay out your needs on the manager's desk and at least see how he responds. The first step is to define exactly what those needs are, such as ownership of certain kinds of decisions, more resources or just the room to succeed or fail on your own, Berkun says.

"Once you've defined exactly what you need, prioritized it and translated it into terms your manager might understand, you bring those requirements to them," he says. "If the response isn't favorable, you know exactly where you stand, which is important. You can confidently make decisions based on the reality of your situation."

That's what Wade did when he accepted a job at Children's Hospital Boston in the 1970s. He wasn't overly impressed with his new boss, but he saw great growth potential at the hospital, in an atmosphere he found interesting. "I figured I'd demonstrate to myself that I'd learned to turn around a bad situation and that in five years, this guy will move on," Wade says.

Despite the positive attitude, Wade's first seven months were "absolute hell," he recounts. The boss was a classic crisis manager who would inevitably find reasons several times a week to call "emergency" meetings at 4:30 p.m. for the entire IT management group -- and then not even stay for the entire meeting. "The meetings would run three hours, and this guy would leave at 6:15," Wade says.

Wade's interpretation was that the boss -- an ex-salesman -- didn't feel competent to solve problems that came up and figured if he got all the managers together, they'd get the problems fixed.

One day, Wade took a stand. He walked into the boss's office and said, "When you're not there providing leadership, we come out of these meetings without much more [direction] than what we went in with. So next time there's a crisis meeting, I'll have a letter in my hand, and it'll be my resignation."

The tactic worked. After that, when the boss called a meeting, it was better planned and better timed, and he was there to provide guidance. "It was almost like by channeling the guy, he became more effective," Wade says. The manager was eventually let go, and Wade became CIO at the hospital.

Despite Wade's success, working for a bad boss usually means either accepting the situation for what it is and behaving accordingly, or planning your exit strategy, C2's Glen says.

"Can bosses get better? Sure," he says. "They do so because they discover new things and realize how badly they've been doing. But relying on that is like waiting to win the lottery. You can't teach your boss."

Have your own horror story? Head to the Bad Boss Blog, where readers post their own experiences, and our experts offer advice on coping.

Also part of this story:

Editor's pick from our archives: Are You a Scary Boss?

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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