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How to Succeed in Life and at Work—Even If You Have a Horrible Boss

You're working for the bastard child of Idi Amin and Anna Wintour; with a little Michael Scott DNA thrown in. Here are 4 ways to be the best employee anyway.

Not long ago I attended a business conference in Scottsdale, AZ—the type of corporate gathering any road warrior knows will invariably end with a motivational speech culminating in some over-the-top, life-changing conclusion: “Everything you’ve been told is wrong!” “Diet and exercise don’t work!” “Micromanaging is good!”

This time, however, the keynote speaker, a deeply respected professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business named Jeffrey Pfeffer, shocked 800 of the nation’s top financial pros with some news that was as revolutionary as it was (refreshingly) boring: that decades of real-world research had proven that everything they knew about good management practices—that, to get the best out of employees, you need to promote from within, invest in training, reward good performance with bonus pay, and decentralize decision-making—was basically correct. Happy employees, he went on, make for kick-ass companies, which is what bosses everywhere have been told...well, forever.

So how come your boss overlooks you for promotions, keeps you toiling in the dark, and reneges on every yearly bonus?

The problem, Pfeffer said, is that few managers actually follow these wisdoms, as conventional as they are. He then detailed some stomach-turning findings: That employee engagement in corporate America is horrible and job satisfaction is in the tank and businesses are suffering as a result. U.S. companies are loaded with loathsome Lumberghs whose inertia, fear, and refusal to share power are sucking the life out of their workers.

It got me thinking: If your company is run by an incompetent corporate cabal, does that mean you have to pay the price? Hardly. So I took Pfeffer’s best management practices and flipped them to write the “best employee commandments.” Use them and you can bypass an awful boss and excel even in a workplace designed to quash success.

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Always Look at the Bigger Picture

(Ignored) Management Rule Number 1: “Don’t select new employees on the basis 
of skills that can be learned relatively quickly; use qualities that are important and more permanent in your hiring decisions.”

Best Employee Tactic: The last person I hired was without question the least-qualified of all the applicants I interviewed. On paper. But what really makes a great employee isn’t the ability to handle the day-to-day rote. I needed someone who could get his head around exactly how we’re different, who could understand the bigger goal, then learn what was necessary to nail it. And guess what? He nails it. Routinely.

Yes, you need to complete all the tasks your job requires. But that’s just the beginning. Every day, think about the bigger problems facing your unit, your boss, your company, your industry. Come up with ways to solve those problems.

I’m not suggesting you pepper your boss’s boss with ideas for changing procedures. No one likes that guy. Instead, when roadblocks get in the way of business, come up with a solution before your boss even knows there’s an issue, and give him that solution when you alert him to the problem.

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Make Every Decision You Can Yourself

(Ignored) Management Rule Number 2: “Decentralize decision-making and assign it to self-managing teams.”

Best Employee Tactic: This is the classic business practice that everyone with an MBA knows and no one ever follows. The logic is obvious: Small, nimble teams understand their niches better than far-removed managers and can react more quickly to a changing marketplace. Companies often even invest in training programs to equip the teams to make such calls.

But the guys at the top of the corporate pecking order didn’t get there by letting other people make decisions, and they’re sure as hell not going to let go now.

So what can you do about it? First, you have to become the guy who manages that team. Don’t have seniority? Fine, just choose one small project and offer to take it off the bigger dog’s plate. Be aware that when you ace it, he’ll probably take credit. But look on the bright side: By making him look good, you just became a valuable ally. Keep it up and eventually you’ll get the credit you deserve.

Meanwhile, keep track of exactly what you do and describe each win for your boss in your next review.

When you do get charge of the team, what if it turns out to be not much of a “team” at all? According to my favorite management guru, Tribal Leadership author David Logan, groups are often made up of well-educated, competitive alpha males. Here’s his simple approach for turning these “me first” types into team players.

“First, be curious about people’s motivations—ask lots of questions, and really listen,” he says. Once you find shared motivations, let the other team members know what you have in common and use the word we.

To close the deal, wait for a day when there’s some cheer in the air and call a few members of your team into a conference room. Logan writes the script for you: “If we actually stopped competing with one another and started working together, we could land [this goal] in five minutes. Wouldn’t that be cool? In fact, if we land it for anything, no matter how small, drinks are on me.”

Notice what happened there. You just became the leader. Congrats.

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Take Advantage of Areas Where You’re Smarter Than Your Boss

(Ignored) Management Rule Number 3: “Share information: Engage in open-book management, because employees need data to make decisions.”

Best Employee Tactic: If you’re 30 or under, you’re basically a digital native. There’s a good chance you speak Internet better than the gray-beards running your company.

So even if you hit a dead end trying to get your managers to share information, you have access to data your boss’s boss probably doesn’t even know is out there.

Learn how to use that data to make decisions. It’ll make your boss look smart when he includes your spreadsheet in
his next PowerPoint deck and give him a feeling of safety when he executes ideas based on that data.

It’ll also shield you if you’re wrong— you’re better off showing that a failure was based on good data than admitting you pulled an idea out of your ass.

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Always Be Ready to Do Things Differently

(Ignored) Management Rule Number 4: "Don’t answer ‘Why?’ with: ‘Because that’s the way it’s always been done.’”

Best Employee Tactic: If you remember only one thing from this article, let it be this: Never, ever, explain anything by saying, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

On the contrary, be vigilant for stale practices and never pass up the chance to change them. You’ll be amazed at how many colleagues will say they hated the old way but never got around to changing it.

Prove that millennials can improve things rather than just drive their older peers crazy, and the promotions will start flowing.

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