How to Survive a Bad Boss

William McQuiston retired last month as CIO at Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, after 41 years in IT. But he still vividly recalls the boss who made his life miserable in the mid-1980s. That difficult period followed his acceptance of a position at a county medical center.

McQuiston was hired to work on a four-person team that was moving one hospital's registration, billing and accounts-receivable system in-house. The team was led by a former PC technician who'd moved quickly up the ranks based on his technology prowess. McQuiston was eager to please his new boss. "I'd been out of work six months, so I was totally elated to have a job and would have done anything for that guy for the simple fact that he hired me," he recalls.

But that was easier said than done. It quickly became apparent that McQuiston's manager was distrustful of the hospital's intentions and paranoid that his newfound power wouldn't last. "Everyone he dealt with he didn't trust," McQuiston says. The boss withdrew and began concealing information from the very people he should have been forming relationships with, including the outsourcing partner, the CIO and the vendor involved in the project.

The situation soured further when McQuiston -- who had 17 years of experience in health care -- became the go-to guy for answering tough systems questions, leaving the manager even further out of the loop. "He turned inward and wasn't doing much management at all," he remembers.

Looking back, McQuiston sees his former manager as a classic example of a specific type of bad boss: the overgrown technologist who gets rewarded for brilliant technical work by being promoted to a position for which he's not qualified. Nearly anyone who has worked in IT is familiar with this all-too-common scenario of a technologically brilliant boss with no management skills. Unfortunately, this is just one of many bad manager scenarios in IT.

Very few people make good managers if they're promoted for the wrong reasons, says Paul Glen, author of Leading Geeks (Josey Bass, 2002), president of C2 Consulting in Los Angeles and a Computerworld columnist. Criteria such as technical capabilities or a domineering personality may lead to managerial positions more often than, say, a desire to help other people. "A good manager finds satisfaction in helping others be productive, not being the most productive person in the room," Glen says.

More bad news: It's highly unlikely that a manager who starts out bad will improve, Glen says. So if you're stuck with a bad boss and don't want to leave your job, what do you do? Here are some tactics that have enabled IT folks to survive despite a monster manager.

Focus on the Work

One survival strategy is to maintain an unwavering focus on the work that needs to be done rather than letting your energy be drawn into the vortex of a toxic personality. That's the tack McQuiston took. "It was absolutely uncomfortable, but my overarching principle was to keep my motivation pure," he says. "We had our work cut out for us, and the more I focused on that, the fewer cycles I had to get involved in gossip. When people start going with that negative energy, it goes the wrong way."

As he focused on the work, McQuiston soon found the group looking to him for leadership, and when his boss was given six months to find another position, McQuiston was asked to lead the system conversion.

Similarly, when John Wade, now CIO at Saint Luke's Health System in Kansas City, started his first IT job, at Polaroid, he soon discovered the downside of his boss's personality. Though extroverted and a master politician with his peers and superiors, the boss was passive-aggressive and unsupportive of his team.

"You felt like you were just floundering," Wade says. But while the three people on the team commiserated among themselves, they considered it politically unwise to take their complaints outside their circle. "We didn't try to end-run him because we figured his boss must think he's doing a good job," Wade says.

Wade wanted to continue working at Polaroid, so instead of suffering in the shadow cast by this manager, he determined to let his capabilities shine through to anyone who might notice. "I figured, 'This guy isn't going to help me; I have to redouble my efforts to be successful and outperform on my own,'" he says.

Eventually, after a change of management at the company, the boss was transferred to a different department. The replacement manager was tough, Wade says, but a guy who inspired his team to give 110%.

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