“The Devil Wears Prada” is a thinly veiled tell-all about a young assistants nightmarish experience working for an abominable boss at a high-fashion magazine. The queen bee, Miranda Priestly, has become practically a household term for emotionally, psychologically and verbally abusive bosses.
The story is popular because its entertaining, but also because it resonates with workers of the world who have all toiled at one time or another for bosses they were certain were the devil incarnate. IT departments are not immune; from the companys favored employee who gets promoted up the ladder with virtually no knowledge of tech, to the tech guru with no managerial skills, therein lies a myriad of IT managers and CIOs who seem destined to make life in their departments miserable.
eWEEK sponged two authors and workplace consultants for everything they knew about bad bosses, from the different types to how to handle each, to when to fold your cards and high-tail it out of there. Salient point: These bosses are anything but dumb.
Marilyn Haight, author of “Whos Afraid of the Big, Bad Boss? 13 Types and How to Survive Them,” is a former management consultant who companies hired when they felt they werent getting the results they needed from their people.
“Id go in to find out what the problem was and the employees would tell me the most outrageous things their bosses were doing, from not giving them the resources or access they needed, to doing their jobs and worse,” said Haight, in Peoria, Ariz.
The Mean Boss
The first type of bad boss has all of the behaviors embodied by Pradas Miranda Priestly.
“This typically bad boss makes outrageous demands, orders you around, and doesnt care about your time or the things you need to do outside the job,” said Gini Scott, author of “A Survival Guide for Working With Bad Bosses: Dealing With Bullies, Idiots, Back-stabbers, And Other Managers from Hell,” in Oakland, Calif.
Some can go so far as to be maliciously bad, intentionally setting out to hurt the subordinates for personal gain.
“The incorrigible types are not the types that dont have the skills or are lazy, but [the ones that] are intentionally hurting their employees or taking advantage of them for personal gain,” said Haight.
Haight offers little hope for fixing or dealing with incorrigible types. “They dont want to be reasoned with.”
Assuming that employees wish to continue working for this person, Scott suggests that they focus on endurance tactics—things they can do to make the situation more bearable.
“You might create a support group of trusted co-workers or a scorecard of funny things the boss said or did. Self-talk or relaxation methods may work. Its important to remind yourself not to personalize it or lose confidence,” said Scott.
Whether or not you quickly run for the door is a matter of personal levels of tolerance and self-protection. Very confident people may be able to stay longer, as they are less likely to internalize negativity from a boss.
“Set your tolerance level, how long you can handle this boss, and how long youll stay. If youre already seeing a doctor for stress or a stress-related ailment, its time to go,” said Haight.
One of the most commonly heard complaints from IT departments is about bosses that lack the technical expertise or systems know-how to manage their departments. Haight refers to this type as “The Pretender Boss.”
“I can talk a good game is their motto. IT people often report to people that dont understand what they do, but think they do. The bad ones will direct them, not admit the limitations of their technical knowledge and throw around a lot of buzzwords, pretend that they know IT. The good ones will say, You are the specialist. You know what you need to do.” said Haight.
These inexperienced bosses are not the ones that have climbed the ladder from within; they could have been transferred from another department or be at the receiving end of special treatment, leaving subordinates hazy about how to handle their grievances.
“In the book, there is an example of parents owning a television station in town and the kid is put in charge of the news. Hes got terrible ideas, but nobody wants to correct him,” said Scott.
Another version of the boss whose experience doesnt line up with the departments needs, Haight said, is “The Wannabe Boss,” who is just out for the power and influence.
“The Wannabe wants the perks that go with the job, but not the responsibility, like they were available for a promotion and someone said How about running the IT department? They know theyre not qualified for the job, but they want the benefits,” said Haight.
These types of bosses are at times the hardest to work for and offer the fewest possibilities for improved relations, as “you cant manage a wannabe manager,” said Haight. However, you might be able to help them out in a way that doesnt step on their toes.
“If the boss is receptive to this, clue him in. Try explaining how something works in the office, or writing the boss a little memo. Some bosses will be very grateful for doing it as it will help them acclimate. But, you dont want to do it in a way that suggests you are losing faith,” said Scott.
Its important to remember that it can go both ways; sometimes IT professionals are put in supervisory roles they are unqualified for.
“IT people sometimes take over training at a company, even if theyre not qualified trainers,” said Haight.
The Reluctant Boss
Believe it or not, there are bosses that never wished to be bosses in the first place—they were simply promoted.
“Sometimes people get promoted because they do things well, like someone in the computer world thats a good computer person but lacks the management skills, background or ability to delegate in the organization. It used to be called The Peter Principle, a popular book from a couple decades ago about how people can get promoted beyond their ability and level of competence. It seems like a promotion, but theyre thrown down an avenue of work they dont know how to handle,” said Scott.
Scott notes that these reluctant types often emerge in creative settings, where workers are very advanced in their field but lack interpersonal finesse.
“In my book, we had an example of a scientist who was suddenly managing a team but was very abrasive to his team and lacked the people skills to manage,” said Scott.
Reluctant bosses dont have the power issues of mean or inexperienced bosses, but they still dont know how to be managers. However, by approaching the situation cautiously, their subordinates sometimes can make headway.
“They can be bad communicators, not giving good instructions, or realizing that theyre not making things clear … The obvious response is to find ways to clarify the communications, such as a memo that explains your understanding of their directives, or you can seek clarification from other employees. You might try to discuss the communication problems with the boss, if they are receptive. Try to emphasize the bottom line: you want to do this so that you can be more productive; no blaming, complaining or whining,” said Scott.
Beyond and within the mean, the inexperienced and the reluctant bosses, there are endless shades of supervisors who cause nothing but headaches. Some are a blend of the three, and some have specific vices that are like the icing on the bad management cake.
Disempowered bosses are stuck in middle management hell; theyre higher on the ladder than those that they supervise but lower than the people who actually hold the strings. Working for a disempowered boss can be the ultimate in frustration for someone with bright ideas.
“Middle managers often want to get things done but have to get approvals, sometimes from a whole committee, like an editor who approves an article but doesnt have the power to put it into print. There are a series of negotiations. A person working under that editor might have good ideas, but theyre stymied,” said Scott.
Dumbfounded bosses are more conniving; they will manipulate truthful information to ensure that they always come out looking good, Haight said. “Their motto is, But the figures say were doing fine!”
The beta might be going terribly, Haight said, but these managers will never kick that information upstairs for fear they might be blamed. “But were on schedule,” theyll say, making it impossible to give them bad news.
Cope or Quit
Haight breaks down the options available to victims of bad bosses fairly succinctly.
“You only have three choices: Stay and cope, transfer to another department if you are in a large organization, or resign,” she said.
Haight recommends that workers tune in early for signs of irreparably bad management. “Be prepared to resign within three months of encountering bad boss behavior,” so that if things dont get better, you have options.
She warns that its a cop-out to think of a bad boss or manager as stupid.
“A bad boss isnt a dummy; theyre smart enough to get away with what theyre doing.”
In some organizations, if there are enough people who are willing to speak out, employees may come together and bring their concerns to the next level.
“When these strategies dont work, take it to the next level. If there are a group of people complaining, you can try to go to the boss boss,” said Scott.
But, this approach can backfire. If the next rung on the ladder doesnt want to hear bad news, doesnt want to manage their supervisees, is too busy to deal with the situation, or simply demands that the bad boss handle things, employees can be in for even more turmoil, from vindictive behavior or worsened tensions, Scott said.
When all else fails, it may be time to simply fold your cards and dust off that resume.
“If everything isnt working and the job is making you crazy, and he/she isnt listening, and theyre not going to replace the boss, you should leave. But, you still want to leave on as good terms as possible so that you can get good recommendations,” said Scott.
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on IT management.