The Biggest Risk That a Bad Boss Poses To Your Career (And How to Avoid It)

bad bossIf you’re not careful, a bad boss can be permanently damaging to your career.

Let me explain how this works.

You might get pretty frustrated if you have a bad boss. That’s understandable.

After all, having a bad boss is a top reason that people leave their jobs. Your boss has a big impact on your work experience.

Your boss sets priorities and expectations.

Your boss is your main link to upper management, as a guide and as an advocate.

Your boss manages your coworkers and sets the tone for your department or group, establishing a big part of the culture that you work in.

That all adds up to a big impact on you.

Maybe you’re living in the Peter Principle where managers rise to their level of incompetence.

Or maybe your boss exhibits one or more of these 19 Traits of Bad Bosses identified by the Association for Talent Development:

bad bossNarcissist. Screamer. Bully. Unapologetic. Suck Up. Poor Communicator. Terrible Listener. Always Right. Unavailable. Never Praise or Encourage. Blamer. Unrealistic and Demanding. Indecisive. Micromanager. Tolerant of Mediocrity and Relishes the Suck Ups. Manipulative. Vindictive. Inconsiderate and Shaming. Take Credit for Other People’s Hard Work.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I’m guessing at least some of it does.

After all, the American Psychological Association recently reported that 75% of American workers say that their boss is the worst part of their job. And most of them say that they would take a new boss over a pay raise!

That’s stressful. And challenging.

It’s even bad for your health.

All of this can really have an impact on you. It can start to change YOUR behavior.

This is where things can get dangerous for you and your career.

Don’t Let a Bad Boss Make You a Bad Employee

Bad bosses can be demoralizing. They can make your work life miserable.

They create inefficiencies, confusion, frustration, and low morale.

That can really change how you feel about your work. Which can alter how you behave.

And this is where things start to get tricky.

You must be careful to not change who YOU want to be as a professional just because you are working for a bad boss.

If you let a bad boss influence your behavior in the wrong ways, it can be devastating to your career.

Don’t let it.

Don’t pick up bad habits, cultivate a bad attitude, give up on trying to improve yourself or trying to help those around you. That’s the slippery slope to becoming a bad employee.

And that only hurts you in the long run.

Control How You Respond

It’s true that your boss has a lot of control and influence over your work experience. It’s true that you can’t change many things about this situation.

You can’t easily change your boss’ behavior. You often can’t change much about how your coworkers handle themselves either. And you can’t change a lot of other things that you probably wish you could.

But you certainly can change how YOU respond to this situation.

You have control over your behavior, your attitude, and your vision for your own personal future.

A Tale of Two Bosses

two bosses

I do not react well to having a bad boss.

When confronted with those bad boss traits listed above, my tendency is to get frustrated, angry, and upset.

It impacts my mood, my behavior, and my attitude.

And that can lead to poor behavior. Because I feel so stuck. I feel like there is nothing I can do to change things for myself, so I don’t even try.

I just want to go away (or the boss to go away).

Fortunately, I’ve had good bosses teach me a better approach.

I got the biggest lesson in this at a key inflection point early in my career.

At one point, I actually had two bosses. One was a bad boss. One was a good boss.

How could I have two bosses at the same time? Easy, I was a consultant.

The consulting engagement embedded me on the client’s team. I worked for a manager at the client site. On a day to day bases, I was a direct report of hers. She was my boss.

She was a bad boss. She drove me nuts.

In my view, she was petty, insecure, uninformed, and incompetent. I hated working for her. It was the kind of situation that becomes so demoralizing that I didn’t want to go to work in the morning.

I dreaded the days. I dreaded my interactions with her. She wasn’t going to change. I was trapped!

I wanted to quit the assignment.

That’s when my good boss stepped in to talk me off the ledge.

He helped me to look at the big picture.

He helped me to see how, down the road, I would be making great progress in my career–if I made sure to get the most out of this current experience.

I should look for ways to make significant contributions. I should look for ways to learn. I should work to develop skills (such as dealing with difficult people!).

I should take a long-view, understanding that this current job was simply a part of my career journey. And that it could actually make me stronger in the long run.

What if I let her get to me?

Who gets hurt if I start putting less effort into my work? Who gets hurt if I start cutting corners? Acting less professional? Commiserating with other unhappy coworkers all the time? Complaining? Acting up or getting upset? Or running away?

Answer: Me. Not the bad boss.

What if I took a different approach?

Who gets helped if I instead become the absolute best employee that I can be? Who benefits if I try my hardest, including helping the bad boss to become more successful? Who benefits if I try to learn as much as possible? Who benefits if I try to contribute all that I can?

Answer: Maybe a lot of people. Probably the bad boss. But most definitely me.

My good boss helped me to understand that the bad boss has only a minor part in the story of my career. I am in the lead role and I need to handle myself like the hero of that movie.

I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying that it’s worthwhile.

I’m glad I took his advice.

Now, many years down the road, I can unequivocally say that I am better off for having worked for that bad boss.

Weird, but true.

The experience taught me a lot, thanks to the guidance from my good boss.

And she wasn’t the last bad boss I would run into on my journey. Learning to succeed in the context of a bad boss is a good skill to have.

Take the Long View

long viewTake the long view of your career.

Your challenges of today–this boss, this job, this project, this experience–are only a part of the story. And it’s probably not as important a part as you might think.

What is important is how you choose to react.

What will you do to succeed in spite of having a bad boss? And how will your actions today set you up for future success?

While it seems that your boss, your organization, your industry, the economy, and many other factors out of your control dictate your success or failure, it’s not really that true.

You are responsible for your career.

The fact is, you have a real choice, no matter your circumstance.

If you choose to give up, you lose. You risk becoming a bad employee. Which means you will take your bad habits and bad attitude wherever you go (if you manage to get anywhere at all).

If you choose to take the long view, to contribute as much as you can, to grow as much as you can, to see the silver lining, then you win.

You take insights and lessons and experience in overcoming obstacles and challenges with you as your career reaches new heights.

One approach closes doors, the other opens them.


Having a bad boss is a bad deal.

It creates challenges, and most of those can feel pretty unnecessary.

They can feel like a waste of time and energy and talent.

But you do have a choice in how you respond.

If you take a long view of your career, you can start to see opportunities for yourself.

You can start to feel less “stuck.” Heck, you might even realize that learning how to deal with a bad boss is a very useful career skill. Odds are that you will run into more than one of them!

Aside from the stress working for a bad boss can create, there is a real danger to your career if you don’t take the long view.

You risk changing your attitude, your behavior, and your work habits for the worse.

Don’t let a bad boss make you a bad employee.

Chances are your bad boss is already stuck. Don’t you get stuck too.

Take the long view, the high road, and make some lemonade out of that lemon. You, and most likely many people around you, will be better for it.

Don’t change who you are, or who you want to become, because you ended up working for a dud at this one particular point in your journey.

Instead, work to become someone who can work with difficult people, see the big picture, and overcome challenges. Help as many people as you can along the way, including your bad boss.

Be a door opener, not a door closer.