So your boss is a jerk. What to do? Of course, how to approach it depends on the severity of the situation, but here are some tips:
1. Go Lean. You may have to make a change, so you need money in the bank. That’s not tapping into your 401k or IRA. You need six to twelve months of basic living expenses in a liquid account. Cut down on discretionary expenses (lunches and dinners out, subscriptions, etc.) and delay new purchases (new tablet, TV, etc.). There are few things worse than having to stay in a toxic situation because you can’t afford to leave. (Note that many people use this as an excuse to avoid dealing with tough issues, even though they could make it work.) By going lean, you will give yourself options (and probably feel better by simplifying your life).
2. Search Smartly. Look around for organizations that fit your skills, passions, and values, that exemplify the triple crown quest (to become excellent, ethical, and enduring). They are top performers and have a sterling reputation and ethical culture. They treat people with respect and unleash leaders. Take a look at reputable lists and rankings such as the World’s Most Admired Companies, World’s Most Ethical Companies, Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations, Charity Navigator, and more.
Discretely explore these organizations. Meet with current and former employees. Read their blogs, newsletters, and financial or annual reports. Visit their facilities to get a feel for the place and what it’s like to work there.
3. Be a Role Model. Employ the five practices of triple crown leadership. Your department will start to soar and may become a talent magnet for other high performers. Perhaps you can influence people through your example.
4. Gain Allies. Meet often with like-minded leaders to share ideas and support each other. Seek out a trustworthy mentor in another area of the organization: someone with considerably more influence and experience. This person may be able to offer perspective, insights, or even new opportunities.
5. Engage the Boss. After doing the previous steps, tactfully approach the boss and raise key issues. Think it through from his (or her) point of view. What pressures is he facing? What drives his behavior? Look for ways to identify root causes of problems and help get things off his plate. Become a trusted ally. Your boss may not know any other way to lead and may need subtle guidance or tactful help that doesn’t threaten his ego or standing.
6. Jump the Ladder. If the steps above have not worked, you may need to jump the chain of command to go to HR or someone at a higher level. By tactfully raising issues, you can help the organization improve. Perhaps your boss needs training, a coach or mentor, a warning, or a pink slip? This action takes courage—and has risks—but could you leave in good conscience before trying to rectify the situation?
7. Get Out. If the steps above do not work, and if the boss is hopeless and truly toxic, then leave. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”
Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards.