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Mid-Life Career Planning: Dealing With A Bad Boss

Who hasn’t been there: working for a bad boss! The truth is, many bosses are bad simply because they haven’t acquired training or skills. Therefore chances are high you will work for a bad boss if your corporate career lasts long enough. Some companies even assess your long-term ability based on how well you can handle a bad boss.

You’ll often get well-meaning advice to “just hang in there” or “just quit: life is too short.” Here are some ways to assess your own environment so you can choose activities and make decisions that serve your career in the long run.

What are you contributing to the situation?

Career planning begins by distancing yourself from the situation. What are you contributing? Are you bringing baggage from previous jobs or even family history?

But don’t let anyone tell you, “It’s your fault.” You may be a misfit. Your industry or company may have a cultural style that’s not a good fit for you. For instance, academia typically has a loose management style with emphasis on unwritten rules.

Some people just can’t work for a boss, even after years of therapy and thousands of dollars invested in coaching. If you recognize yourself here, start taking courses in entrepreneurship and begin working with a coach to start your own business. You may not be a natural entrepreneur but chances are you’ll adapt better to business ownership than to life with a boss.

What’s really going on here?

Your boss’s unrealistic demands may reflect pressures from her own boss. Alternatively, she may be struggling with her own personal issues, such as a divorce, bereavement or illness. If your company culture allows her to bring her personal problems to the office, you may have to start looking very discreetly for a new job.

Coach your boss.

Sometimes your boss just needs simple information: “I can finish this project faster if you authorize this software.” But sometimes you and your boss have developed a toxic pattern of interactions that calls for longer-term strategies.

I often encourage my clients to draw on analogies to dog training. If you keep saying “yes” to unreasonable requests, you’ve trained your boss to keep asking. You probably can’t refuse a request outright but you can emphasize choices: “If I work on X, I will have to put Y on the back burner. What would you like me to do?”

A boss who’s not coachable is like a dog who can’t be trained. You learn to work around it or somebody has to find a new home.

Are you gaining something beyond a pay check?

If you’ve saving large sums of money so you can take time off later, gaining a marketable skill or paying dues for a big promotion. you should hang on if you’re not risking your sanity.

Will this situation go on forever?

My friend “Professor Bob” says, “You don’t like the dean? No problem. He’ll be gone in a year or two.”

Of course, in some situations, nobody moves. And that will probably include you! If your boss hasn’t moved on, where will you be? You’ve got to start searching for a new position, within the company or outside.


Sometimes you have to walk, no matter what.

You have to be CEO of your career. When you stick with a bad boss for too long, you might actually be lowering your chances of succeeding elsewhere. You might be in an environment that’s so toxic you destroy your physical and/or mental health.

A career coach or consultant can provide a sounding board. Ultimately, you have to take the initiative, after gathering information and getting objective opinions from qualified sources.

By Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D


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