How to handle the dysfunctional boss: Tips on keeping the workplace happy and productive

“This land is your land, this land is my land … ” Remember those Woody Guthrie lyrics sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary and, most recently, by Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl?

“This land is your land, this land is my land … ” Remember those Woody Guthrie lyrics sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary and, most recently, by Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl?

That kind of sharing, however, is hard to find. One group thinks something is all theirs, and the other group “knows” it’s all theirs. Or do you read a different newspaper or watch a different TV newscaster? We can do little about this bickering and apparent dysfunction in the nation. You wouldn’t like to work in that environment, but the work environment that some reader reports face may not be too dissimilar. Let’s look at some nonfiction situations you may be lucky enough not to face.

Situation A: Does Age Matter? My boss is new here and has a strong resume in the departmental specialty. He is 25 years younger than I. I have a good evaluation record with two previous bosses, but I am not at all comfortable as I face my first evaluation from him. I never seem to be able to do what he wants; he belittles virtually everyone in the department; he takes over any meeting to tell us how to do the job as if we didn’t know. I am becoming quite dissatisfied here.

Situation A: Analysis: The hiring of a younger specialist to lead long-term employees is an increasingly common occurrence. There is likely a natural resentment that this “youngster” has been hired at a high salary to come in and tell “us experienced hands” what to do. The new boss believes he has a way of improving the operation, but he has not yet developed the communication skills to explain the rationale behind his ideas. Is he really belittling you, or is that the way you feel when being urged to consider how you perform a task? Regardless, it is important that the senior employee sit down with the boss and express his frustration. “What would you have me do differently to be more effective?” If the senior wants to inflame the situation, he might say, “I am tired of being criticized and seeing others catch your anger when we are doing what we have always done and previously been complimented on.” War has been declared, and who wants that. Lead all to get on the same page.

Situation B: Micromanagement: I am a transfer from another department. My former boss was a firm believer in delegation and allowed me to tackle a problem and usually offered praise. My new boss has evidently never heard of the concept of delegation. He likes to have a daily diary of what I have accomplished and how much time I have spent on it, often questioning why a particular task took the time it did. He is not a bad guy; he just is so afraid of his department doing poorly, even though it has a good reputation. However, he has had considerable turnover and that is how I was able to move here in a higher-paying position.

Situation B: Analysis: Research has identified in many studies that one of the most difficult behaviors a leader/manager must master is how to delegate … and be comfortable doing it. Often it is surprising that a high-level manager has not identified this delegation deficit. One approach could be for an affected manager to visit with the HR manager to discuss the departmental situation. The issue of concern for HR would be the turnover in the department and a possible reason being the failure to delegate and the resulting micromanagement. Handled well, the boss can change and the department and company will be more effective. It will not change quickly.

Situation C: Who gets the credit?: My boss does many things well, and I have high regard for his knowledge. However, he always claims the credit for whatever work is done in the department. None of us ever is recognized for our efforts. We do make him look good! He rarely mentions any specifics in our evaluations and prefers merely to mark up our evaluation forms rather than having a real discussion with us. Is he that busy?

Situation C: Analysis: An old management adage: When you catch someone doing something right, be quick to tell them about it. We can extend that to say that when a staff member does something well, tell the world. You are, indeed, fortunate to have such a person working for you. One approach would be to have the boss take the “good employee” to a staff meeting and have him or her explain what was done to improve productivity or increase sales. Or you could approach someone who is close to the boss — perhaps even a peer manager. That person may be able to help the “take credit” manager with behavior modification. HR can play a role here; it can surely impact the implementation of the performance-appraisal process.

Situation D: Boss does not understand his department’s work: I work at a fairly large marina and am a mechanical supervisor; there are three of us, and we are working supervisors and all stay busy, as well as our mechanics. A few years ago our management team was compressed, and now our work unit falls under the marketing/sales manager. He almost never contacts me or others here about our work unless a customer wants a rush job. We have always prided ourselves in not putting one job in front of another, except to get a unit ready for delivery. We have one line especially for those boats sold by our company which need repair/maintenance work. The manager never comes into our work area and knows little about anyone who works here. He socializes with his sales associates. Am I wrong in feeling left out?

Situation D: Analysis: MBWA is now a traditional management practice recommended in all leadership development programs. Management by Walking Around can allow the manager at any level to get to know what is happening in the affected unit and to get to know the employees and listen to their concerns. It has the added value of making staff members feel that the boss cares. Perhaps you and the other working supervisors should invite your manager to come to the maintenance area and observe processes under way. He likely is not comfortable going there or he would already have done so. Give him plenty of opportunity to ask questions. Perhaps you could point out the features of other brands that can help the marketing of your company’s brands. You can be a good source of intelligence about other brands, as well as how your brands are performing. One valuable step would be a monthly summary of what the department has done and what revenue has been generated. Often the maintenance/repair section brings in greater revenue than sales. Help him understand how important your department is. Get your fellow working supervisors to plan and help.

Situation E: An autocratic leader: My company is now operated by the founder’s son. He has never worked in the company, other than part-time summers while in college. Yet he seems to believe he knows everything. He will come into a department and tell the manager to change for the sake of change. He shows no respect for anyone’s work. He is an MBA type with computer models to show why we should change. No one now feels secure in their job, and I believe this has lowered morale and will hurt the company’s reputation and sales. Why does he want to control everything? Can anything be done to change him? Ruling from the skybox overlooks many variables at ground level.

Situation E: Analysis: Entrepreneurs often feel they have their whole world wrapped up in the business. It is their baby and they often spend every waking hour in the endeavor. The entrepreneur father likely “knew it all” as the company started. Now the son feels an obligation to continue the success of his father, and he believes his own MBA work has suggested new approaches that can ensure the success he craves. Here we seem to have a generational problem — one that is rearing its ugly head in many organizations today. Often it is a communications challenge for both generations, as well as a “rollout” plan for new approaches. At the time of this writing the executive branch in Washington is suffering because of the rollout of an executive order. Managers need to help the new owner/executive make the changes he has the legal right to make in an orderly fashion and not in a rushed manner. Avoid the “my-way-or-the-highway” approach.

I hope you have experienced none of these situations. They are common, however, in many businesses.

Good luck with whatever your own problems may be. Drop me an email, and we can chat about any of these problems or others.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue.


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