Arguing With the Boss – and Living to Tell About It

Take it from me: Arguing with the boss is generally not a career enhancing experience.

I know this because I have worked for a lot of different bosses over the course of my career, and I have done my share of fighting with many of them.

Yes, I’ve battled at some point with just about every person I have ever worked for, but these arguments really break down into two distinctive categories:

  • Arguing with bosses who see this as part of the normal give-and-take of the job, who aren’t threatened by it, and, who respect you for being passionate and caring enough to engage in a difficult conversation.
  • Arguing with someone you work for who views the argument as a threat or a challenge to their authority. This is usually the reaction you get from those who are either arrogant, self-centered and tone-deaf to those around them, or simply clueless and unskilled in managing people. Sometimes, you get all of the above combined with a mean and nasty demeanor, making for one unforgettable individual.

‘There are a lot of bad bosses out there …”

The Harvard Business Review recently dug into this topic on their HBR blog with a post titled When Fighting With Your Boss, Protect Yourself Firstand it reminded me of all the bad bosses I’ve ever worked for, saying:

There are a lot of bad bosses out there, leaders who aren’t stupid but lack emotional intelligence. Their self-awareness is strikingly low, they’re clueless when it comes to reading people, they can’t control their emotions, and their values seem to be on a permanent leave of absence.

These dissonant leaders are dangerous. They derail careers and blow up teams. They destroy people — sometimes overtly, sometimes slowly and insidiously. Over time we can find ourselves in perpetual, all-consuming combat with these bosses. We think about it all the time. We relive every last painful word hurled our way. We nurse our wounds. We plot revenge. We talk about our boss and the injustice of it all with anyone who will listen, including coworkers and loved ones.

It’s tiresome, really, but we can’t help ourselves. It feels like a fight to the death. That’s because fighting with a powerful person — like a boss — sparks a deep, primal response: fear. After all, these people hold our lives in their hands — the keys to our futures, not to mention our daily bread.

Clearly, battling to the death with one’s boss does not lead to health, happiness, or success. But what can you do?”

Good at one thing but promoted to do something else

Yes, what can you do? Arguments and disagreements are part of life, and if you work for someone who won’t tolerate the normal give and take of life and the workplace, what do you do?

Well, Forbes tried to quantify Why Are There So Many Bad Managers? back in 2013, and one of the seven reasons they listed jumped out at me:

“Managers are often good at something other than managing, and the company focuses on those skills.”

Yes, this is probably the No. 1 quality that defines all the bad managers I’ve ever worked for. They seemed to have gotten their job for something other than their skill in managing people, and when they were put in a position where they now HAD to manage, well, they simply didn’t have the ability to do it.

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For example:

  • The former sales manager who was great at selling but terrible at setting direction or understanding (and appreciating) what the rest of the operation did.
  • The top editor with a thug-like demeanor who had zero editing or management skills and was promoted because of his success in helping to break a union elsewhere. Of course, his style was all about confrontation, threats, and projecting the possibility of physical confrontation.
  • The guy who was highly skilled at negotiating business deals and rewarded with a senior vice president’s job as a result — even though he knew nothing about any part of the operation he was now charged with managing. As an added bonus, he was also delusional and arrogant, and as time went on, his arrogance made him completely unwilling to listen to advice from anyone else.

Maybe time to find another job?

So again, what do you do? How do you deal with a bad manager you find yourself arguing with all the time? Again, the HBR blog seems to put their finger on the answer:

Fighting at work is nasty. Fighting with one’s boss is downright painful. It can kill your spirit and ruin your health. If you are perpetually fighting with your boss, you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s worth it to stay in your job. Sure, we all have a million reasons for staying in a job (this stance is usually fear-based, too). If the relationship with your boss can’t be fixed, why not think of all the good reasons to find another job — with a better boss, in a better culture where such fights aren’t tolerated?”

That bit at the end is worth remembering, because the problem isn’t in having an argument and some give-and-take with a boss who sees that as a necessary part of the relationship, but instead, having a fight with a dysfunctional and unskilled manager who sees every disagreement as a personal challenge and a fight to the death.

Arguing with a superior in a positive environment is healthy and constructive; having a nasty fight that puts you in fear for your job is not.

If you keep that in mind, you’ll always know what to do — whether you are dealing with your boss, or, the people someone has charged you with managing who look up to you.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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