Bad Boss Advice

An article titled “Horrible bosses, and how to deal with them”:

It makes no sense to let a perpetually difficult situation fester. Rather than sweeping your feelings and concerns under the rug, you need to approach your supervisor and work to build a more productive relationship. Confronting your boss may cause some trepidation and fear about putting your job in jeopardy, but in the long run, it will be better to lay your cards on the table and try to resolve the troubling relationship. Every relationship is a two-way street, and the fact is that unless supervisors receive some feedback, they won’t realize the effect they are having on you or your colleagues. …

Once you’ve considered your supervisor’s perspective, schedule time for an honest, direct and positive conversation. Let your manager know that you sometimes find work frustrating, and you would like to better meet and exceed his expectations. By staying calm and professional while also avoiding blaming your boss, you’ll discover new ways of working together. Be prepared to leave if necessary. (more)

My professional therapist wife thinks this is bad advice and so do I. Maybe if a boss seemed ok overall but unaware that something they did really bugged you, then maybe you might gently and privately point that out. But if you’d call a boss “horrible,” then probably he’s well aware about what you don’t like, or he will punish you for seeming to challenge his authority.

But notice how supporting this advice lets one affirm many ideals:

  1. We “stand up” to and resist dominators, and will support others who try.
  2. It is not our lowered status we object to, oh no, we have objective reasons to complain.
  3. When a boss and employee conflict, the boss not the employee is usually to blame.
  4. We don’t secretly trash talk people we don’t like, no, we act in full view of all.
  5. We are reasonable, and reasonable people sit down and talk about their problems.
  6. We assume everyone is reasonable until they clearly prove otherwise.

We often give and consume advice more to affirm our ideals than to usefully improve decisions.

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  • V.G.

    You’ve come dangerously close to determinism here. Ideology is a potent instrument for shaping human behaviour, and we have gone a long way in limiting the impact of human predispositions.

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  • The article is trying to hitchhike on the “Horrible Bosses” movie – or maybe promote it.

  • Rjb

    The article placed much more emphasis on “make sure you are prepared to get another job.”. Why not give it the old college try too? Oh, right, the higher education bubble….

  • JJW

    I find this post more than a little curious. Is it your position that if you have a horrible boss that you should not – even in the gentlest and most private manner possible – discuss the situation with them in the hope of working it out? If so, what should you do; just leave?

  • “We often give and consume advice more to affirm our ideals than to usefully improve decisions.”

    Would you say this is true for the usual advice to economics graduate students? Or are economists so socially inept that they just tell the truth?

  • Karim

    Actually, the advice given by “The Federal Coach” is consistent with my experience as both boss and employee. A lot of workplace conflicts are really the result of misunderstandings. The author is not saying “stand up to your domineering boss”. He is suggesting an open and respectful discussion in hopes of finding a way forward.

    Notice the key elements of his advice: “don’t assume you know what your boss is thinking”, “understand your manager’s priorities”, and “schedule time for an honest, direct and positive conversation.” This is not a call to revolution, it is a “clearing the air” meeting.

    And yes, it is good advice. I have gone through this process multiple times from both sides of the table. Unless your boss truly wants you to fail (which is rare), it almost always yields a positive result. It works not because it assumes “we are reasonable”. On the contrary, once your boss has had their chance to vent,and you express your desire to be cooperative, they will probably feel some remorse for being so hard on you. That is, their emotional response will work in your favor as you express a desire to improve the relationship.

    • Buck Farmer

      Agreed. This like most human interactions has to be an emotional play.

      Another tactic I find works well if you’re fairly new to your career is trying to trigger your boss’s sense of magnanimity by asking for help. The point being to reaffirm your vertical relationship and take advantage of human instinctive or culturally inculcated habits for superiors to look after inferiors who are not challenging the hierarchy and are in need of help.

  • Robert Koslover

    Many years ago, I found this book to be fairly helpful in assessing whether I should stay in my job or look elsewhere. I chose the latter and did not regret it.

  • Samantha Atkins

    It is actually quite good advice. It makes clear your expectations of relative rationality form your supervisor. It by implication makes clear what you expect of the relationship and are will put up with. It is proactive and honest giving full room for a mutually happy outcome without leaving the job or becoming more and more unhappy. It is not about idealism but about practicing rational self-interest.

  • JJW

    Looking at the comments that were made since I posted, I must agree with Samantha Atkins, Karim, and Buck Farmer. The article in question gave what was at the very least reasonable advice and was probably the best advice that could be given under the circumstances.

    More to the point it indicates a potential problem. I’ve enjoyed it Robin Hanson’s exposure of hypocrisy, but constantly looking for underlying motives can lead one to forget that sometimes” a cigar is just a cigar”, i.e., the purported reasons that someone is doing something may in fact be their real reasons . If one is constantly looking for secret motives, it would probably be wise to employ a form of Occam’s razor to the behavior of other people; assume that their stated motive is their true motive unless it is clearly not. (Most people would probably be wise to make the opposite assumption.)

    Second, something may not be objectively true, but still be very good operational advice. Take the sixth point in the posting: “We assume everyone is reasonable until they clearly prove otherwise.” Assuming everyone is reasonable is way too optimistic, but making that assumption is probably the best way to deal with people in 21st-century America. How much clarity should be required before discarding the assumption is a matter of judgment.

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