There's nothing worse than a bad boss, and nearly everyone ends up with one or two during their careers. However, if you are repeatedly working for miscreant managers, you should stop blaming your bosses and examine your boss selection methodology. I wouldn't have thought it at the time, but when I think back to my bad bosses, I have to admit that in each case there were clear warning signs that I chose to either discount or ignore entirely.
Try these five tips to keep you from the clutches of a bad boss.
1. Try before you buy.
If possible, perform ad hoc projects for your prospective employer part time during the weekends and evenings. I did this twice in my career and it allowed me to assess the people, the culture and the veracity of the company's value proposition before I joined full time. Although this tactic is not practical for everyone, it is a highly effective way to minimize career mistakes.
2. Check the boss's references.
Your potential boss will check your references. You should do the same. Although it is clearly inappropriate to ask your new boss for a list of referrals, you can probably cobble together your own list on LinkedIn.
Speak with people who worked with or for your potential boss. Even if the reference did not work directly with your future manager, they may still have valuable insights that would be impossible for you to uncover during the interview process.
Have coffee or lunch with one or more staffers at the new company. Ostensibly, your purpose is to learn general information about the company, its culture, etc. However, use this opportunity to discover as much about your potential boss as possible, without appearing creepy of course.
3. Do some digging.
Ask your potential boss about former employees who were not compatible with her work style. Assess the manner in which your would-be manager describes the process by which she fired these employees. If she is sympathetic and takes ownership of the employees' failures, then she will likely be empathetic with you as well. If she becomes defensive or demeans the terminated employees, you should expect a similarly negative reaction should she find fault with your performance.
This conversation might also make it easier for you to identify and speak with some of the terminated employees. Although you have to apply the grain-of-salt rule--these may be bitter ex-employees--their feedback will no doubt help your overall decision process.
4. Look for patterns.
Institutional investors use pattern matching to minimize their mistakes. You should do the same, looking for patterns in your history. Consider your past incompetent supervisors. How did these horrible bosses mask their personality flaws during the recruitment process? Were there signs that should have alerted you to trouble ahead?
5. Make your own job.
The only way to ensure you will never encounter another bad boss is to call upon your inner entrepreneur and make a job, rather than take one. You won't have a formal boss at your start-up, but you'll be accountable to investors, partners, customers, and your employees. After dealing with all of those pressures, you may wish that your biggest problem was a difficult boss.
The silver lining
Although bad bosses suck, you can learn a great deal from them. In fact, my managerial skills were greatly enhanced by one particularly horrible boss: He reinforced what not to do when attempting to motivate and manage people.
Ultimately, as described more fully in Advice For Emerging Entrepreneurs (And Anyone Else With A Boss), if you have a problem with your boss, you're the one with the problem, not the boss. You can either attempt to resolve the issues or move on. Assuming he will accommodate you is an unrealistic, losing strategy.
Don't say I didn't warn you. If you find yourself in the clutches of yet another dreadful boss, force yourself to honestly answer the following simple question: "Why did I agree to work for this cretin when I could be working for an awesome boss?"