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Advanced Boss Taming: Better leadership from the ‘Ugly’ Boss

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I’ve written about the good and the bad, then there’s the Ugly Boss. 

Which is why I was driving into the cold wet night to meet up with a client.  This boss believes that the carrot and the stick both work.  If you break the stick over a team-member, hit them with the carrot.

This boss doesn’t bother to find out what motivates his team.  He’s quite frank about it.  He simply doesn’t care.  He pays you to deliver and when you do he won’t congratulate you or give you the pat on the back you deserve.

Illustrations by Frits Ahlefeldt at

Illustrations by Frits Ahlefeldt at

He may deliberately (or unwittingly) practice ‘divide and rule’.  Belittle you because you’re his target this week.  Buy 2/3 of the team the latest laptop.  Leave the rest of you to struggle with new systems without the firepower or the back-up. 

He may be ineffectual.  He’s hired you because he thinks he can hide behind your abilities.  If he’s indecisive, he can pin the blame on you when you can’t deliver to his mixed messages.

He thinks he’s creating a ‘competitive edge’ in his team.  When what’s really happening is that the infighting is reducing sales.  haemorrhaging growth.

I offer you three key steps in Advanced Boss Taming

The first step in “Advanced Boss Taming” is to look for the good in your boss.  Yes, I’ve said it.  They’re not all bad.  Not 100%.  Not through and through.

Often when I ask my coaching clients about the good they see in others, they’re surprised at the length of the list.  Although it may take some time to draw it out…

Something like:

  • He’s technically very good
  • He’s great at client presentations
  • He knows the business inside out
  • He does deliver on his promises – eventually

Putting ourselves in the boss’s shoes is actually the first step to taming them.  Listening to them – I mean, really listening – helps too.  We get to understand and empathise.  Ok, so he wants neither understanding nor empathy.  But this isn’t about him, it’s about you.

By getting to know this boss better, we also have the opportunity to turn this obstacle into an ally.  How can his or her strengths support you to be more successful?  Find out – and use them.

Advanced Step Number 2 – take control of those emotional triggers…

Identify what you’re triggered by and work towards a neutral response.  The logic behind this method is that, if you react emotionally when he turns his attention to you, he’ll see you as an easy target next time.

This is the big Boss Taming secret.

  • Lose the emotional reaction to the triggers he sends your way.
  • Take control of your emotional reactions.
  • Improve your self-control.

You’ll win friends and influence people on the way, too.

I’ve mentioned the international Coach, Marcia Reynolds, before.  She trained me in her emotional intelligence training, which I love.  Marcia had us expanding our emotional vocabulary, then keeping a diary.  Then noticing the emotional triggers that hook me.

  • The place – the poorly lit or ventilated, cramped meeting/hotel room, or conference venue
  • The time  “I’m hungry/thirsty/tired”
  • The people – their tone, their attitude, their behaviour
  • The culture – finger pointing or divide and rule?  Long hours or clock-watching?
  • The language – At the extremes it can be all ‘me, me, me’ (I’m too busy, too important, to distracted) or ‘you, you’ you’ (You’re not working hard enough, not important/compliant enough…)

So how we respond to our triggers can change.  We can choose our emotions.  We can ramp them up.  We can keep them neutral.

Advanced Step Number Three – rebuild your confidence

My main concern,  however, is with you.  With your confidence.  I’m not going to suggest you “think positively”.  Or ‘reframe’ the situation.

I am going to suggest that, in the short term, you do everything in your power to deliver.  For two reasons:

  • You’ll demonstrate your capabilities to others.  Including your boss.  And  get your confidence back.
  • You’ll remind yourself just how good you are.  And get your confidence back.

Now, there’s a risk that the Ugly Boss will believe that his mean tactics ‘work’.  Because, lo and behold, you’re performing to his expectations again.  But there’s something called the ‘halo’ effect.  When we get the spotlight of attention, our performance improves.  Regardless of whether that attention is positive and supportive – or negative and controlling.

This is not sustainable.  You need to have the first two tactics practised and ready to deploy.

Once we’ve regained control and confidence, the fun bit can happen…

The fun bit happens when we consciously change and work on our responses.  Is it just me, or do others get pleasure out of not rising to the bait?

  • When we respond playfully when others expect us to blow our top
  • When we respond calmly and politely, although the past it’s been very different
  • When we take our positivity into the room

The aim here is to tame our boss by building our own emotional resilience and self-control.  And most importantly – our confidence in ourselves.

You need to know how to work with the Ugly Boss for the time that you remain in his part of the business.  Or in his company.  Because the longer term strategy here is to re-build your confidence.

Then you can plan ahead.  Sort out your CV – based on your strengths, track record and employability.  And think about getting out.

It’s over to you

In my career I’ve experienced the best of bosses and the worst of bosses.  The ineffectual ones.  The here today, gone tomorrow ones.

  • My interest in good leadership was sparked by the person who told me my time management was poor – only to replace me with 2.5 full-time people after I resigned.
  • It grew when I experienced the best boss I ever had.  Someone who took the time to understand – and encourage – my interests and strengths.  He believed in me.
  • It developed further when my boss gave me a fascinating article to read on toxic organisations.  She encouraged me to explore the theory and think about its application in the real world.

It’s a privilege to work with some wonderful and inspiring people; 1-1 and in groups.  Today’s leaders and tomorrow’s bosses.  I encourage you to build your career by seeking out and working for the best bosses. Learn the Boss-Taming Techniques and don’t let the good, the bad or the ugly of leadership hold you back.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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