04/02/2012 02:17 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

This Is Not the Boss I Ordered

Whispered water cooler conversations about bad bosses used to surface sporadically in work environments. These days, the complaining seems to be getting louder and less clandestine since lack of leadership is a growing frustration for professionals in a myriad of career sectors. Forbes blogger Erika Andersen summed it up nicely, stating in a recent post, "Top talent leave an organization when they're badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring."

I have been fielding numerous questions on my CBS radio show: Career Coach Caroline from people who are at their wits' end dealing with an incompetent boss. Sadly, the good bosses are harder to find than those who wind up in leadership positions because of the Peter Principle where in a hierarchy employees tend to rise to their own level of incompetence. We aren't teaching enough leadership skills at university and in a tough economy, professional development budgets have been slashed or eliminated. Well-meaning individuals who land roles as leaders often make your work life hellish because as nice as they are (and some are not!), they are inept at leading. So what's a professional to do?

Take Control
I've seen many professionals leave great companies and wonderful jobs because of bad bosses. While leaving is always an option, in a tight job market you should consider a few other things first. Take control of how you operate in your work environment and how you communicate with your boss.

Figure out your boss's work and communication style and deliver your message accordingly. For example -- does your boss respond better to verbal or written communication? Does he need specific details or a big picture overview? Is she a planner or more spontaneous in implementing the mission of the organization?

Most conflicts in the workplace come from differences in personality, communication, and work styles. Understanding how your boss operates may alleviate some of your stress and give you and your boss better clarity of expectations. So watch and listen, and ask others who have some institutional history to share their strategies for dealing with your boss.

Manage Up
In many workplaces, the boss does not notice what their staff is doing unless they are on fire (literally!) or if something goes terribly wrong. If you are chugging away, producing great results, chances are your boss will focus more on his work since you don't appear to need anything.

While the autonomy may seem liberating, you must make sure that you manage up so your boss and her boss know the value you bring to the organization. If you don't tell the powers that be what a great return on investment you are -- you may stay a well-kept secret and that will stunt your professional growth within the organization and beyond.

Don't wait for an annual performance review to showcase what you do well. Schedule a periodic check-in or send written updates documenting your results and initiatives. Consider creating a portfolio that illustrates exactly how you impact your organization positively. This evidence will also help you plead your case when you are seeking a raise or promotional opportunity.

Boss from Hell
While some bosses just need leadership training -- others are beyond repair. If your boss behaves unethically, egregiously, or harasses you -- get yourself to human resources immediately. There are labor laws to protect you and you deserve a healthy and safe work environment. Don't worry about being the bad cop; let the human resources people advocate on your behalf and document the unacceptable behavior of your boss so you have a record.

What I have seen over and over again in my consulting practice is that many naïve bosses simply don't know what their team needs -- so take the boss by the horns, as it were. Have a frank conversation with your boss and tell him what you need. Tell her what your purpose is on the team, your goals, and the culture you believe will enhance productivity. If you can clarify your aspirations for the future of your organization and be a solution provider, instead of a complainer, then your boss may learn from you and appreciate your leadership insight.

Of course that utopian concept doesn't always work and sometime bad bosses are also jerks. If your boss is beyond repair and you have an unhealthy work environment that prohibits you from doing your job successfully, you may want to consider moving on.

After all, you deserve to work in an environment where you are valued, appreciated, and recognized for your accomplishments. Having a boss who will mentor you, or even sponsor you would be an added perk but you may need to work elsewhere to find this.

So start a stealthy job search since you are much more employable when you are currently employed. No matter how bad it gets, your bad boss is not worth being unemployed for so stick it out until you find a non toxic environment and let their shenanigans roll off your back.

Don't Diss Your Bad Boss
As tempting as it may be to announce to the social media masses what an ass your boss is -- take the high road and keep all communication professional. The network is small and you will need a recommendation from your current boss if you move on. Never throw your boss under the bus and develop talking points for why you are looking to move on. In many cases, a bad boss's reputation is far reaching so you need not say a word in order to be understood by a prospective employer.

When you are on the job hunt be sure to interview your prospective bosses wisely. Don't assume that your next boss will be better. Here are some questions to ask during an interview:

What is your leadership style?
How do you mentor or sponsor your team members and encourage their professional development?
Of all the people who have worked for you, who are you the most proud of and why?
Can you describe a conflict between you and your team and how it was resolved?
Why did the person who left this position move on?
What are your future goals for the team?

Know When It's Time to Go
If your new boss passes these interview questions with flying colors then you may be lucky enough to land in a healthy new work environment with a great boss who will give you an opportunity to grow and prosper. But if the new boss seems worse than your current boss, it may be a deal breaker and force you to extend your job search for a better fit. It's worth waiting for a functional boss so never underestimate your boss's role in your success and happiness in the organization.

You should be looking for a multiplier boss who will optimize your strengths and give you an opportunity to take on new challenges, debate decisions, and invest in the organization with direct buy-in and accountability.

The perfect boss may be difficult to find so in the meantime capitalize on your expanded network within and beyond your organization to find mentorship, leadership, and the professional respect you deserve.

Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name ( She is also the Director of Career & Professional Development and Adjunct Faculty at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. She hosts the national CBS Radio Show Career Coach Caroline on Tuesdays at 5pm