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Tips for Surviving a Nonprofit Boss From Hell

Written by: Rebecca Koenig
Published on: Feb 11, 2020

Bad bosses plague many workplaces, often due to lack of training, but some employees have the misfortune of laboring under managers who are truly dysfunctional. These leaders can create more problems than they solve, demoralize workers, and obstruct progress.

At times people are promoted into leadership roles that don’t suit them because they have a strong performance record or sharp technical abilities. However, good managers also need emotional intelligence and people skills, says Alicia Schoshinski, senior HR business partner at consulting and search firm Nonprofit HR.

Nonprofits can be especially susceptible to dysfunctional management because they often lack leadership-development programs and forego proper management training to save time and money, says Lisa Wright Ponce, director of project consulting at Nonprofit HR. Nonprofit employees also may seek promotions into management roles simply to make more money, not because they enjoy leading or are qualified to manage other people.

Judging by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd that gathered at the 2017 Nonprofit Talent & Culture Summit in Washington to hear executives at Nonprofit HR talk on this topic, concern about bad bosses is widespread. If you report to a boss who makes your work life unpleasant, you can take steps to make your time in the office more productive while protecting your job and sanity.

Ms. Schoshinski, Ms. Wright Ponce, and Sidney Abrams, managing director of HR consulting services at Nonprofit HR, offer the following insights on types of bad bosses and advice for dealing with them, drawn from their comments at the summit in April and follow-up interviews.

  1. Recognize common management pitfalls.

Bad bosses come in several varieties.

Premature leaders often have strong technical skills but little experience supervising people. They have trouble building teams and creating relationships with those who report to them. Because they lack authentic connections and influence, they try to maintain their authority by referencing their titles or using rationales like that old parental standby, "Because I said so."

Political leaders got their positions through their connections rather than their skills or desire to lead. They often focus on appearances rather than substance and prioritize their personal agendas. Aiming to please many parties simultaneously, they may be indecisive.

Divisive leaders create competition by trying to pit employees against each other. They may only share vital information or resources with certain people. They don’t prioritize teamwork or shared goals.

Micromanaging leaders don’t trust employees to meet their goals. They show signs of self-importance and have trouble delegating work to other people. Their frequent interference limits staff empowerment.

Narcissistic leaders are more concerned about their personal power than the mission of the organization. They don’t accept responsibility for failure (or constructive feedback) but they hoard credit for success.

Workaholic leaders value quantity of work over quality. They treat everything as a high priority, which can create employee panic. They may have trouble planning in advance.

Bullying leaders use threatening tactics to achieve their goals. They may try to intimidate employees, undermine their work, or embarrass them publicly. They often surround themselves with people who cave into their demands.

Once you understand which type of manager you have, you can begin to manage your relationship.

  1. Communicate — carefully.

Although it might feel safer to sulk quietly, you may be able to rein in some of your boss’s dysfunctional behaviors by communicating more effectively.

If you report to an inexperienced or "premature" leader, ask how you can best support his or her goals for the team. Develop a deeper relationship by engaging in friendly conversation.

If you report to a new manager who is a political leader, offer to fill your boss in on the history of your department and what his or her responsibilities will be. Ask to work together to create a strategic plan for you and your team.

If you report to a divisive leader, gather as much information as you can from your colleagues, then confront your boss on his or her inconsistencies. Use concrete examples, such as, "You told John that the project is due Monday, but I didn’t get the word. Is my portion due Monday, too?"

If you report to a micromanaging leader, ask about how he or she wants you to demonstrate progress and get detailed information about his or her expectations. Emphasize your abilities and your coworkers’ strengths, and talk about your team’s successes.

If you report to a narcissistic leader, he or she won’t take criticism well. Don’t try to confront your boss in personal terms; instead, when you need to solve problems, talk about practical work issues, such as due dates and resources you need.

If you report to a workaholic leader, set priorities and reasonable expectations for yourself and your team in a collaborative way. You can refer to these agreed-upon priorities and expectations in the future. During these conversations, discuss ways to improve your team’s processes to make them more efficient. And don’t enable your boss by complimenting him or her for taking on extra tasks or working after hours.

If you report to a bullying leader, confront bullying behavior decisively in the moment. When he or she says something belittling, respond calmly but firmly. For example: "That’s not constructive. Can we discuss this without getting personal?"

  1. Adapt, to protect yourself and your sanity.

With a truly dysfunctional manager, communication will only get you so far. You will probably have to change how you work to accommodate your boss’s behaviors in ways that don’t drive you crazy.

"As a subordinate, you have to support your boss’s weaknesses. That will position you for success," Mr. Abrams says. "Try to operate in a way that is conducive to his or her work style."

If your boss is in a leadership position prematurely, don’t expect an easy rapport. Use your social skills to support your colleagues in ways that make your team stronger.

If your boss is political, offer to brief him or her with essential information before important meetings. Communicate, discreetly, with other managers when important decisions need to be made. Assume that you will need to motivate and direct much of your own work.

If your boss is divisive, resist his or her efforts to drive a wedge between you and your colleagues. Try to collaborate, not compete, with them.

If your boss is a micromanager, do your best to anticipate his or her needs. Provide frequent updates on your work to prevent worry. Document your results and your reliability in case your boss questions it.

If your boss is narcissistic, avoid emotional interactions and try not to take his or her behavior personally. Remember, everyone in the office is probably being treated in a similar fashion. Think about how to be an ally to your boss in the workplace.

If your boss is a workaholic, set and protect boundaries that help you maintain a reasonable work-life balance. Document your results in case your boss expresses concern that you are not working hard enough. Look for ways to make your work — and your boss’s work — more efficient.

If your boss is a bully, document the bad behavior in case you need to report it internally or externally. And make sure to set a good example of appropriate behavior yourself.

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.