I was just reading a compelling and heavily research based by psychologist Robert Hogan called Personality and the Fate of Organizations. In Hogan's chapter on "The Psychology of Managerial Incompetence," he cites an interesting study by by McCall and Lomdardo (see this book for a summary of much of it) where they had interviewed a large number of managers about "career defining events." Every manager reported that they had spent a long stretch "working for an impossible boss, not difficult, cranky, or abusive, but impossible." So their first conclusion is that just about every adult will have to work for an impossible boss at some point. The researchers reached a second conclusion that troubles me, "when working for an intolerable boss, if a person sticks up for him or herself and refuses to bullied, his or her career will be irreparably damaged. When working for an awful boss, a person's only option is to suffer in silence."
I was taken aback by this advice. It certainly isn't always wrong, as I suggest on my list of tips, there are times where the best option when working for a bad boss is to suck it up and take it -- and get out as fast as you can. But there are just too many examples -- and research too -- about how trampled underlings have successfully fought back against abusive and incompetent bosses. A couple famous cases come to mind right away --- Brad Bird now of Pixar fame and Robert Townsend, the author of the classic Up The Organization --- indeed, Bird's case, he was hired by Pixar in part because he had no tolerance for incompetent authority figures; indeed, his past firing from Disney was career enhancing move.
These guys ultimately succeeded, in part, because they fought back against bosses they did not think were competent. I also have had several longstanding email exchanges with people who are now CEOs because they fought back against and ousted their incompetent and mean-spirited predecessors. In The No Asshole Rule, I do emphasize that if you have an asshole boss, sometimes the best thing to do it is become emotionally detached and not let it touch your soul. But I also argue that there are times you can fight back, and when underlings band together and fight back --- and practice some skilled politics --- they can win against a bad boss, and help rather than damage their careers too.
I should also add that, although the typical person stuck with an impossible boss might be better off riding out the storm in silence and turning the other cheek, if everyone followed this advice, bad bosses would never be punished, reformed, and fired and terrible decisions would never be stopped. If you haven't read Michael Lewis' story about AIG, this might be a good time to do it. He presents well-researched evidence that one reason that AIG messed up so badly was they had an "impossible" boss named Joe Cassano running their Financial Products unit, who was intolerant of dissent, and those who tried to stand-up to him learned it was better not to and left, leaving only people who didn't fight back, suffered his tirades in silence, and said things like "Joe, you are right." The article estimates this unit lost about 45 billion dollars, and suggests that the fear that Cassano instilled in his followers was a large contributing factor. I wonder, are those underlings who suffered in silence really better off now -- not to mention U.S. taxpayers who have loaned AIG nearly 200 billion bucks.
That's my reaction. What do you think?
1. Is this advice right? If you have an impossible boss, is it usually is a career-limiting move to fight back?
2. How do you know when to fight versus when to keep your head down and escape as fast as you can?
3. What is the best way to fight back?