How To Handle A Bad Boss

Dealing with a bad boss can be soul-destroying, so we've asked the authors of Step Up, Phanella Mayall Fine and Alice Olins, to offer their expert advice. 

'Having a bad boss is a work cliché, one we’ve all experienced. But if things deteriorate beyond repair, a spiky relationship with your manager can rock your career.

Sure, we all have days when we feel frustrated with those above us; when the bad energy that’s built up the whole week, boils over into a post-work rant and glass of wine with a friend. That's normal. 

But what happens, and how do you cope, if your bad boss situation encroaches on your everyday? If the person above you keeps you down, doesn't listen and blocks your enjoyment – and crucially, your success? Work, as we say in our new female career manual, is really just about people - and when that goes wrong everything else suffers.

Our book, Step Up: Confidence, Success and Your Stellar Career In 10 Minutes A Day, is the realisation of our shared belief (that's us, the authors, Alice and Phanella) that all of us have it within ourselves to celebrate our womanhood and have rocking careers to boot. And not just CEO type careers if that isn't your bag, but ones reflect each of our unique set of interests and values - and make us happy too. 

Read more: How to succeed as a fashion intern, by a woman who knows

We all struggle in our careers, just as we all have the capacity to shine, but a dud boss makes things more difficult than they need to be. So what is a bad boss? Well, there are of course, many strains. There are the bosses who are unable to communicate; who don't explain what they want, and then berate you for not understanding the brief. Others are more cunning in their trickiness; some are insecure and find it hard to allow those beneath them to shine. These umbrella bosses, the ones who block your sunshine, are complex beasts who need to be handled gently. 

There are bosses who don't trust their team; bosses who micro-manage everything down to team lunch orders; plenty that rule through fear and others who are clueless – who are skippering a sinking ship. If any of these resonate with you and bring to mind your senior manager, then there could be stormy waters ahead.

A bad boss though, doesn't spell the end. Rather, we suggest turning the problem on its head and seeing a dud boss as just another surmountable career challenge that makes you stronger in the end. In fact, dealing with a trickster at the top of the ranks, is great training for coping with other challenging career obstacles. 

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So our first pieces of advice are to stay calm, be strong and have the strength to accept that this is not forever. Work, as we all know, is built on a myriad of challenges, and this is just one of many that we will encounter during the course of our careers. Also, remember that a dud boss is not a personal attack on you; usually his or her shortcomings say more about them as people than it does you.  

Most bad bosses aren't bad people. They might, say, be struggling with personal issues; equally, it might be that they're dealing with a bad senior boss themselves and are projecting these issues onto you. While this is inexcusable, if you can at least view your boss through different eyes, it will help clarify why they are acting in a certain way - be that disruptive, distant or antagonistic - and help you rise above the daily attrition.  

We talk a lot in our book about the emotional side of career success: the strength of character, confidence and empathy it takes to be your best at work. As women, the breadth and depth of our emotional spectrum makes us brilliant and fragile in equal measure. In situations like the ‘dud boss’, we say, don't succumb to your insecurities. Rather, use this challenge to build and strengthen your emotions arsenal. Because when you are able to channel frustrations, failures and skewed thoughts into belief and resolve, you will come out fighting. 

Read more: How I found my perfect fashion job

As we said at the top, a way to retain the upper hand and ultimately preside over the dud boss, is to never take the bait; and if that means a scheduled weekly debrief with your best friend as a way to vent off any stored up anger, than so be it. Because a screaming match at work is a no-no of the highest order; so whatever is going on, keep your exterior unruffled. And never bad mouth your boss at work: that’s what post-work best friend debriefs are there for.

In summary, remember that this situation will end – this too shall pass – and that while you’re in it, treading difficult waters, you are building your character strength, your emotional power and your understanding of others too. These are all vital lessons in career progression. One day, when you’re riding high again, you’ll thank your dud boss.'

How To Handle A Bad Boss


Align yourself…

4 Minutes: Brainstorm as many things as possible that you and your boss have in common. 10 at least. Maybe you both genuinely believe in the product you sell, love to write or have kids. NOW WRITE THEM DOWN. 

4 Minutes: Repeat your list out loud. As if you are having a conversation with yourself (we recommend closing the door to your office first). ‘We both love the brand,’ you say. ‘That's something we have in common. Maybe she's just trying to do her best but is under too much pressure. I know that feeling.’  Gradually as you go through the list in this way you realise that while you may be better at dealing with your stress, there's a bit of you that can understand her better. 

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2 Minutes: Feel the empathy towards your nightmare boss. Feel empathy for yourself and your reaction. PREPARE yourself to have the next conversation with her for real (because nothing prepares you for a difficult conversation like actual PREPARATION). Come at it from a softer place and, usually, feel him or her soften too. 

Step Up by Phanella Mayall Fine and Alice Olins is out now on Vermilion, £12.99. 

Phanella and Alice will be appearing at the Careers 360 Immersion Day by Penguin Living. Buy tickets here. Alternatively, the first 20 people to email Jennifer Harlow ( will receive a free pair of tickets, plus copies of Step Up, Thrive by Arianna Huffington, Gravitas by Carolina Goyder and Do Less, Get More by Shaa Wasmund.