Ask around and you'll find just about everyone has a tale or two about a prickly professional relationship with a boss. Stories of underqualified executives and managers who lack crucial interpersonal skills abound.
But, how do you know if you're in a toxic situation worth ditching, or simply living through a rite of passage that could lead to career advancement and personal growth? Start by checking out these scenarios and suggestions.
Clear as day
Not long ago, Jenna* accepted an offer for a great job with a health website based on the West Coast. Yet almost from the get-go things with her immediate superior were thorny. One problem: Jenna's manager had less experience than Jenna in some areas key to their division.
"My boss struggled with some of the tasks she was supposed to complete, so I'd stay late most nights to help her," says Jenna.
It was a tough situation, but Jenna figured that if she helped her boss out, she'd prove her own worth, and inch closer to the more senior title she was actually already qualified for.
Before long, however, another employee snagged that role, leaving Jenna feeling used and undervalued. "I'm always loyal to my bosses. That's the kind of employee I am," she says. "But, in hindsight, I realize that I was mistaken to think my efforts might lead to a better working relationship and a promotion."
Ultimately, the situation got so bad Jenna was plagued by chronic sinus infections in addition to other health issues. So after almost a year of suffering through bad management and stifled career advancement, Jenna left for the first good opportunity that came her way.
Sticking it out
Of course, sometimes you just have to know how to make things work in order to acquire relevant industry experience, or because the job — except for the boss — is an otherwise great fit.
That's how it is for Olivia*, who's worked in marketing for a major car manufacturer for eight years. But, for at least the last four, Olivia has struggled under several underqualified and slightly shady bosses who play favorites when it comes to doling out perks and good assignments.
Her survival tactic: developing a support network of work friends who share her high standards and integrity. "These are people I have worked with for at least several years, so I have built trust with them," says Olivia. "I know they have similar expectations from our leadership and aren't happy either with what we're getting. Ultimately, we're all 'survivors' so we commiserate about the BS we've had to deal with."
So, what should you do if working for your boss isn't, well, working out?
- Isolate the problem.
Start by figuring out if the trouble lies with the boss — or you. "Are they truly a bad supervisor, or do you just not like being managed the way they manage?" asks Chandra Turner, founder and CEO of Ed2010, a career website for people in media, and Talent Fairy, a recruiting and coaching service for editorial content creators. Because even a perceived 'bad fit' can lead to perspective and growth. More strange-but-useful advice: Ignore your boss's reputation. Just because some folks don't like a boss's style or method doesn't mean you'll feel the same way.
- Be true to yourself.
Early on in your career, it can be tempting to accept any job that comes your way. But think it through, says Turner, because you could conceivably end up spending more time with your boss than you do with your roommate, best friend or spouse. That doesn't mean you have to love everything about them, but you do need to be able to be professional every day in every way. So, don't be seduced by a great HR rep, or the fact that the job is with the Coolest Company Ever or your favorite brand. "It's your immediate boss you need to be comfortable with," says Turner.
- Cut your boss some slack.
In this era of fast and furious startups, there are plenty of C-level executives who actually have zero management training and who haven't been lucky enough to have professional mentors/role models, which might help explain why they knock it out of the park with brilliant ideas, but fall short when it comes to supporting a team, or offering advice for advancement.
However, that doesn't mean a bad boss deserves a hall pass if they seem to be blocking your career growth or worse. If that's what's going on, Victoria Vitarelli, a New Jersey-based career coach and marketing executive who's worked with MasterCard and the New York Jets, recommends keeping a journal of any problematic interactions and attempts you've made to improve them. "That way if the time comes that you do need to take things to HR or a supervisor, you'll have a record of what you did," says Vitarelli.
- Follow the leader.
Is there someone else in your office who not only gets along famously with the boss, but who also seems to be on the path to success within your organization? If so, study how they interact with the boss (complimenting the boss's ideas before throwing their own into the mix? Following the boss's directions to a "t", but also taking initiative on new projects?) and try to follow suit.
After all, a relationship with a boss is a lot like a marriage, says Turner. "There are highs and lows, and sometimes you can be annoyed while other times you feel lucky," says Turner. "You and your boss might be in a patch where you aren't gelling, and one little thing could tip the scale again."
*Names have been changed.
There's so much to consider when searching for the right professional fit, like "Should You Choose Passion or Salary in Picking a Career?" and what's the best way to "Mold an Eclectic Background into a Career"? Read up on these topics and others at LiveCareer's expansive library of Job Search articles.