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Exorcising the "Boss From Hell"

You’ve just started a new position as the manager of a department, and you’re trying to build rapport with your team members, but something is thwarting your efforts. Your team seems edgy, hypersensitive and reluctant to talk to you. When you offer constructive criticism, they grow agitated and defensive. A palpable feeling of gloom and paranoia pervades your department.

This situation might sound familiar to anyone who’s ever had to replace an abusive, destructive, or otherwise harmful manager. The lasting collateral damage inflicted by such “bosses from hell” can be difficult to repair. The problem often runs more deeply than the malicious manager in question, according to Anna Maravelas, president of conflict resolution company Thera Rising and author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress. “Employees feel abandoned and betrayed by the entire organization, not just the bad boss,” she says.

The first step in repairing the damage is acknowledging it. “Collect information on the extent of the misbehavior and its impact in one-on-one interviews,” says Maravelas. During the interviews, in addition to gathering data about the extent of the manager's behavior, ask the employees what they need to hear in order to move on and who they need to hear it from. A central theme will emerge in response to these two questions.

While candor is important, the new manager should avoid getting caught up in mudslinging, warns Jim Stroup, author of Managing Leadership. “You will get some good history during the process, as well as some excellent new ideas, but you will also get personal criticisms, whether veiled or overt, of your predecessor,” says Stroup. “You should neither solicit nor comment on these.” Let the employee vent, but don’t reinforce or reward personal criticism. Never agree with the criticism and don’t choose the occasion to contrast yourself favorably with your predecessor.

Personal attacks, however much they might make the employees feel better, can also obscure any underlying issues. Indeed, the maligned manager might have been as much a victim as the employees. “To some extent managers influence situations, but situations also influence managers,” says consultant Ben Dattner. “The bad manager who preceded you might have been as much an effect of the problems as a cause of them. It might turn out that misaligned incentives, illogical organizational structures or ambiguous reporting relationships are to blame for the dysfunctions of the organization.”

Whatever the root causes, apologies are in order for allowing a manager to run roughshod over his team members. “There should be an unqualified apology from the person that employees feel is responsible for overlooking the offending boss’s behavior,” says Maravelas. At the same time, offer overdue praise to the team members who kept the team together through difficult times. “You will find that staff took extraordinary measures to compensate for the destructive manager's behavior,” says Maravelas. “These acts should be acknowledged and informal leaders should be thanked.”

Establish clear guidelines for reporting abuse or other problems so employees can be confident of having their concerns addressed going forward. “Employees need to have absolute clarity about the company's policies and procedures for elevating concerns about any supervisor's behavior,” says Maravelas. “Often employees have been terrorized into not reporting unprofessional behavior. Most destructive managers enforce highly visible, brutal consequences for anyone blowing the whistle about their offending behavior, and in order to recover employees need to know how to professionally raise future concerns. They also need to hear in detail how their concerns will be handled.”

Once you’ve cleared the air and soothed hurt feelings, rally your team members by engaging them in work. “After you've determined how to proceed, call the group together one more time for a ‘we're going back to work’ meeting,” advises Stroup. “Don’t refer to your predecessor's shortcomings; talk only about the work facing the unit and how you all will be addressing it. Tell them that it is time to bring their skills and experience back to bear on the group's work. Explain in some detail how you see that happening and tell them what will be provided to help them do that.”

Taking on new tasks or special projects can be one way to rebuild confidence, says Stroup. For example, if your organization is designing a new product in which your unit could play a key role, it could be an opportunity to let your team members shine. “If you can fight for and win a challenging project for your unit, your presenting it to them will show them that the organization's view of them is reflected by their being given this new, large and important task, not by their having been burdened with the previous bad manager,” Stroup says. “You will be amazed at how they will show you what they can do. And you will have put the past firmly behind you.”

While it’s difficult to deal with the aftermath of a bad manager, it can also be an opportunity to learn what makes people tick. “Managers coming into such a situation should not feel daunted or hesitant about it,” says Stroup. “They should have optimism grounded in the realities of why people work, and how ready they are to forgive past mistakes and move on when presented with credible, responsible and focused managers. That is what provides the opportunity not to just restore the unit and the productivity and morale of its employees, but to improve them. Moreover, the manager him- or herself has a golden opportunity to gain years of really priceless experience from such an assignment.”