Seven Ways to Survive a Dysfunctional Boss

After one of my posts on bosses who exhibit the symptoms of one disorder spectrum or another, Dr. Brian Monger of @SmartaMarketing asked me if I could recommend any ways of dealing with someone like that. It’s a tough question. Assuming that none of us in corporate America have the kind of education and clinical background to make an accurate diagnosis (and why would we be working in a corporation if we did?) we employees are left to cope with a set of inexplicable behaviors, attitudes and communications. And no platform on which to stand while we do it.

Obvious Signs of a Dysfunctional Boss

This isn’t exactly a hidden problem. Steve Tobak on CBS/Moneywatch offers “7 Signs of a Dysfunctional Boss.” Les McKeown of Inc. recommends “How to Fix Your Dysfunctional Boss,” Pragmatic Marketing has some good “Strategies for Dealing with an Irrational Boss.” Googling this topic brings up a long, sad list of articles on everything from Forbes to Monster. Books have been written on the topic and TV loves dysfunctional bosses because they make such good dramatic tension.

Mister Burns

Mister Burns

The fact that so much is written on this topic indicates the scope of the problem in American business. My problem with some of this advice, though, is that the authors glom different behaviors into the one label whereas behaviors differ depending on what his problem really is.

Having said that, here are some purely personal ideas and suggestions that might help you to survive a dysfunctional boss, regardless of his dysfunction:

Seven Survival Tips for a Dysfunctional Boss

Don’t try to change him

Michael Scott, The Office

Michael Scott

This is the first and biggest hurdle to clear. The behavior of your boss, your VP, your co-worker, or the CEO was set a long time ago. Whether it’s genetic and inherited from parents, driven by his/her cultural upbringing and education, a set of coping mechanisms developed in childhood, or the result of fluctuations in brain chemicals, the behavior has been with him/her a long time. Nothing you—or possibly even a psychiatric professional—can say or do will change that. Attempting to do so will just make you frustrated. It might also cause him/her to target you as a threatening person and a troublemaker.

Observe his behavior carefully

As Yogi Berra famously said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” You want to familiarize yourself with the person’s behavior because it’s important to know what you have to work with—or work around—as you go about your job. If you can predict that his “Behavior A” will cause your “Reaction B,” then you can prepare for or avoid that behavior. Conversely, if you know that saying or doing something will cause a negative or unpredictable reaction in him, you can train yourself to avoid that behavior.

Make sure that your annoyance doesn’t come from a clash between his working style and yours. I once became very annoyed with a boss who was never in the office because I wanted to talk with him personally and go over my plans and accomplishments with him face to face. He, on the other hand, thought it was more important to be in the field, helping the sales force and was irritated that I wasn’t communicating with him through email and phone messages. Once this discrepancy was pointed out to me—along with the fact that the boss gets to set the working style—I adjusted my own behavior and we both became much happier.

Provide Strength Where He Is Weak

Someone who is bipolar, ADD, Asperger’s or in possession of another behavioral dysfunction will most likely have a visible weakness. Remember that your first job is not to perform the function for which the company hired you, the one that involves all the expertise and achievements on your resume. Your first job is to make your boss look good and to make his life easier. Accomplishing that will help you to succeed with most normal people and quite a few dysfunctional ones as well. They typically know where they are weak and are grateful if someone on their staff is willing to back them up.

I once asked my boss for the monthly Actuals Report so I could manage my department’s budget and know exactly how much I had left to spend. He thought for a moment, then turned and pulled the report out of the trash. I asked him to please send it directly to me the next time he received it and I would take care of it. After that, I managed his budget for the whole department and he was happy to have me do it. That way he could take credit for being on top of things without actually spending time on something he hated. Managing the budget directly made my job easier as well and gave me some valuable experience.

Maintain Your Identity

Louis Litt, Suits

Louis Litt

Do everything you can to put mental space between you and his bizarre or infuriating behavior. Remind yourself often that you are not the problem and you are not responsible for his actions.

Create distance between you—physical if possible and mental if not. Move your office far from his if you can. Wear headphones while you work. Meditate every day and/or go out for a noontime walk. Retreat to a conference room to work and leave a sign on your desk so he can find you when needed. Exercise as often as you can in order to blow off stress and pump up your endorphins.

Stay Organized

A dysfunctional boss is often disorganized as well. Keeping all your ducks in a row will accomplish two things. It will make you the dependable one he can turn to when he’s confused or under pressure to provide the board with information he doesn’t have at his fingertips. It also gives you any background information you may need to cover your butt or look good if he wanders into the weeds or goes off the deep end.

Be Invisible

When all else fails, hide. I once interviewed a candidate who had spent over four years in an event company known for its volatile, abusive, and insulting founder with consequent high employee churn. With a smile, I asked him how he had accomplished this amazing feat. “I’m tall,” he replied. I didn’t see how that was relevant so he explained. “I could see over the cubicle walls and he couldn’t. So when I saw him coming, I just went somewhere else for a while.” That’s good street smarts.

Walter White, Breaking Bad

Walter White

Having said all of this, I know only too well that any or all of these suggestions may work just sometimes—or until they don’t. Unpredictability is a hallmark of the dysfunctional boss. It goes along with his lack of interest in your job satisfaction, general happiness or ability to pay the mortgage. The only thing that matters to him is his job, his career, and his mortgage.

If you can help him with those things, you’ll be in better shape than if you fight him, go around him, or show your contempt for his work performance. Above all, do not go over his head and complain unless you have a sizable group of people who are willing to go with you to Human Resources. And I mean actually walking into the HR department with you. It’s not enough for people to say they’ll back you up if you complain. That makes you the focus of the problem.

HR Knows Already

Keep in mind that HR probably knows he’s a problem, knows all about the churn, has heard stories of the weird or abusive behavior, and agrees with your assessment. But that doesn’t mean they’ll do anything about it. In my entire career, I can only remember one instance where HR stood up on their hind legs and fought for the members of a department against a VP. Even more astonishing, they won.

But don’t count on this happening. It’s far more likely that you’ll be targeted as a troublemaker and you really don’t want that to happen. After all, it’s far easier to get rid of you, an employee at will, than it is to fire an executive with a contract.

Bottom line: If all else fails and you can’t stand the thought of going to work every morning, . . . If your stomach hurts when you see an email from him . . . If you wake up at 2 am worried about what he’s going to do to you next . . . If you start snapping at your spouse or kids and want to kick the dog . . .

It’s time to leave.

Note: If you have developed a successful technique for dealing with a dysfunctional boss, I would really love to hear it. You can comment on the post or send me an email at

Good luck.

Related posts: