WORKPLACE / JUN. 09, 2014
version 4, draft 4

How to Learn From a Bad Boss

mean boss

People say you should write about what you know - so let me introduce you to my ’bad boss’. Thankfully for me, she was a boss of a boss, which proved the saving grace in a very difficult period in my early graduate career. A diminutive lady, often in Prada suits, she would haul me out of meetings to shout at me for perceived wrong doing, and deliberately greet or blank myself and my colleagues depending on how she felt about us that particular day. A warm and sunny chat with one person would then immediately switch to a cold stare at the next desk, in lieu of greeting; I disliked her so thoroughly I was delighted by the respite provided by her having root canal surgery and therefore allowing some equilibrium into the office for a while.

See also: How to Make Your Boss Love You in 10 Easy Ways

But what, you may ask, can be learnt from such a painful predicament?

Don’t mirror what you see

Developing the habits you are horrified by, may seem at first unlikely, but being surrounded by any, particularly strong management style and office culture, can rub off. Look at your colleagues - you may see that some mirror poor behaviours to gain acceptance or as a defense mechanism against a difficult office environment. Notice it, remember it; don’t get used to it. If you learn nothing more than a long list of ’what not to do’ when you’re a boss, it might make the whole experience worthwhile. If you become the mirror image of the boss you struggle with, you might find the experience career limiting in the longer term.

Pick your battles

Depending on the level of issue you see, you may need to make the difficult decision to call your boss on their poor behaviour. If you feel you can talk to them face to face about it, do so in a sensitive, non-confrontational way. Be clear in what you want to say and practice it. Talk to a trusted friend or colleague and use them to help you put your issues into perspective and frame what you are saying. Use specific examples and think about the feedback you are giving. Basing it around an emotion may help - for example, describing ’When you said this to me, it made me feel like this’, is more impactful and more likely to be heard than saying ’You’re a bully’.

If this is not an option or does not work, check if your company have robust grievance and whistle blowing policies, speak to trusted colleagues or your HR department. If your gripes are minor or superficial you might find better ways to manage your emotion, but if there is a genuine issue causing distress or discomfort to you or others, make sure you know your rights and recourse.


Don’t fall into the habit of gossiping or whining about the boss. Even if others do, it is draining and unproductive, and can inadvertently cast you in the light of a trouble maker. However, this is a great time to watch and learn. How do others deal with the boss you dread? Who has developed a good working relationship with them, and how? What strategies can you learn from the experience? Throughout your working life you will need to deal with ’difficult’ people, and learning from the best around you now will stand you in good stead.

Identify the good bits

No matter what you think of your bad boss, they got their position for some reason. Identify what they’re good at and it can help you put your experience into context. Perhaps what has got them this far is not working too well in their new position? Perhaps they are under personal stress or pressure in their own role? Perhaps they feel hopelessly inadequate and their resulting poor behaviours, are due to a lack of their own self esteem. Whilst this may not help in the immediate moment, time spent considering what you will - and will not - learn from their management style and abilities will help you use the experience productively in future.

So what did I learn from my ’bad boss’ experience? I learned how one can make ones presence known before even stepping over the threshold of a room. I learned that, when you’re that senior, even something as simple as to whom and how you say hello can set the tone in the office for the day. I learned that stature has no bearing on presence. I learned that being demanding got results - even if I didn’t like the methods employed. And most satisfyingly, I learned quite how painful root canal surgery can be.

See also:  How Do You Become a Leader?

The experience of working for a difficult boss, or in a generally difficult office environment, early in the career, can be a useful one in the long run. Do not stay in a situation that is putting you under undue stress or causing anxiety without seeking help, either by challenging what you see or by talking to your HR team. Do not let the situation sap you of your joy and energy - but if your troubles are likely to be transient, use the ideas above and take the time to think of ways to use the situation to your advantage.

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