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The bully boss never went away, they just wear a disguise now. Here are the 4 archetypes of bad bosses and how to deal with them

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A few decades ago, many high-intensity workplaces fostered environments where militaristic bosses yelling at and harassing their employees went unchecked. Sexism and racism were also more prevalent, and there often were no reliable ways for employees to complain. But times have changed, and now most big firms have HR departments that frown on old bullying tactics like shouting, degrading, or intimidation. The ‘traditional bully’ boss era is largely over.

That doesn’t mean HR has eradicated bad bosses, though. Workplace bullying is still alive and well—it’s just flying under the radar. Bosses who want to unfairly exert their power without getting reprimanded have shifted their tactics to less obvious ways.

Grace Lordan, a labor economist at the London School of Economics, has found, by conducting over 500 interviews with workers, four archetypes of these contemporary bad bosses. Here’s how to tell which one you may work for, and how to handle them.

The modern bully

The modern bully is an extension of the traditional volatile boss, updated for the HR era. Instead of shouting, they harass targeted workers by limiting their ability to participate or advance in the workplace. 

“They’re savvy, so they don’t explode,” Lordan tells Fortune. “They’re much more quiet, and the people who they don’t like, they tend to ignore, isolate and exclude.”

This could take the form of a boss ‘forgetting’ to invite targeted workers to several meetings or ignoring requests for new opportunities, according to Lordan. Some bosses also refuse to field employees’ complaints, essentially icing their victim out of contributing to the workplace and giving them the silent treatment. 

If you find yourself working for the modern bully, creating physical and professional distance from the boss is key. The target should build networks that the boss can’t infiltrate or shun them, and even move their desk or work remote more to minimize interaction with their bully.  

If a boss’s bullying is severe and persistent, an employee can keep a paper trail that documents when they were excluded, spoken badly of, or passed over for opportunities they deserved. HR can do more with proof of a pattern than one-off subtle aggressions. It also depends on who the aggressor is—HR is much better at policing middle managers than top ones, and primarily exists to serve the C-suite.

“When it comes to the modern bully, what you’re trying to do is to get as much distance from them as possible, and also enter into compliance baseball,” Lordan says, referring to playing by the rules and keeping a record of unfair treatment and your own accomplishments. “In getting opportunities, getting promotions, getting pay raises, you want to bring as much transparency to that process as possible.”

The egotist

The egotist is characterized by their huge ego and sense of pride that has to be tiptoed around. Above all, they hate being threatened, so their employees can’t ever perform better than them.

“It’s very important that the person who is working with the egotist doesn’t excel, and helps them, and always shines them in a good light,” Lordan says. “The egotist is one of the biggest culprits for hiring people who are basically like themselves.”

The egotist hires and promotes people who agree with them, or are already their friends, because they don’t want to feel foolish in any future disagreement or be exposed as not knowing something, according to Lordan.

If working for an egotist, you must decide to what degree you want to play their game. If you choose to flatter them and act how they like, you’ll likely be rewarded with raises and promotions, but Lordan doesn’t recommend that. 

“If you are dealing with an egotist, along with transparency, you want to think about how many tightropes you actually want to walk,” she said. “If you pander to the egotist, if you make them feel good about themselves, you can probably do quite well in the organization.”

What an egotist really wants is applause, but be wary of giving them too much, as it results in a poorly run organization, Lordan added. Like with the modern bully, your best bet is to avoid them and keep record of your own actions. 

The mediocre manager

As the name implies, the mediocre manager is not very good at their job. They can be terrible at completing basic responsibilities, but they are promoted because they know how to play company politics. 

“They tend to be quite good at building relationships within the company itself, that’s why they tend to do well and they can survive things like restructuring and mergers,” Lordan says. “Not because they actually are competent in their core tasks, but because they’re quite competent at pandering to other people.”

Mediocre managers have a symbiotic relationship with egotists. They usually have found how to pander to a high-ranking egotist and got promoted as a crony. But in their own way, they’re also quite volatile and self-serving, and more unpredictable than an egotist. 

If you have a mediocre manager, it’s important to remember that they’ve survived within the organization by playing games, not by the merit of their work. Lordan advises being compliant and transparent when dealing with this manager, but to get out sooner rather than later.

“If you find yourself under a mediocre manager, the clock is really ticking,” she said. “It’s very unpredictable about how they’re actually going to react. If they make mistakes or things don’t go their way, they probably would blame you for it. So be in compliance mode, making every detail regarding things like paid promotions as transparent as possible.”

The overly nice boss

An overly nice boss may seem like a problem most workers are dying to have, but they come with their own problems. For workers wanting to advance in their careers, working under an overly nice boss is problematic because it hinders productivity. This boss is so focused on being liked that they’re unassertive, can’t get things done, and doesn’t bring in new opportunities for their team. 

“Some leaders are incredibly nice with respect to learning about their employees, learning about their social lives, and supporting them externally, but they’re not very good at having those hard conversations inside,” Lordan says. “That includes things like performance management.”

They also shy away from discussions that are essential to the business, such as how to innovate or restructure. They want to maintain an overly happy, chill atmosphere that ultimately is at odds with individual and organizational career growth.

If your boss is nice to a fault, it’s easier to deal with them than the other archetypes. Lordan recommends seeking other opportunities within the organization, and even asking your boss directly for exposure to new colleagues or transfer to another team. Because they’re so nice, they’ll probably say yes. 

The bottom line

“Somebody who wants to do well in their career would do well to avoid those five types of archetypes of bosses,” Lordan tells Fortune. (The fifth type is the traditional bully boss).

If it’s not possible to fully mitigate a boss’s pattern of bad behavior, employees should find ways to create strict work-life boundaries, so that the toxicity is contained and doesn’t cause stress in their personal lives. And if all else fails, there’s always the option to switch jobs. 

If a boss poses a serious threat to an employee’s career, it’s best to get out sooner to minimize the damage. Setting a hard deadline for improvement is a good strategy for indecisive people. While workplace dynamics have evolved in the last few decades, packing up one’s cubicle and walking out is always an option as long as you have another job lined up. 



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