Unless they are very lucky, most people will have had to work for a difficult boss at some point. Whether it’s someone with a tendency to micromanage or a manager who pretends to know what they’re doing, they can make work extremely hard. If you are really unlucky, you may be stuck with the kind of manipulative boss who enjoys playing power games.
A boss who is a bully, incompetent or manipulative can make life extremely difficult and even derail a career. According to a survey by the Equality Group found 63% of Brits state a bad boss is the number one reason why people quit their jobs — and half said their current or previous bosses have caused them significant anxiety and stress.
Quitting a job isn’t always an option, though, particularly when you have rent, a mortgage and bills to pay. And with fewer businesses hiring during the coronavirus pandemic, finding a new position won’t be easy. So what is the best way to deal with a manager who enjoys petty power plays?
“Power plays are strategies that employees and managers alike use to increase their influence across the organisation,” says Dania Shaheen, vice-president of strategy & people operations at the employee experience platform Kazoo.
“These attempts become detrimental to the overall company and individual employee experience when the player is more concerned about increasing their own status than preserving working relationships.”
Power playing can take many different forms. It might be taking credit or control of a project that someone else is responsible for, or supervising a colleague's work even though you aren’t their direct manager.
In some cases, power games may involve an individual who is superior because of their positional power, but lacks the talent or skills required for the role. They may feel a need to self-promote, which stems from a fear that they are under-performing – or they may just be narcissistic.
“Power playing is one of those interactions that will leave a bad taste in employees’ mouths and ultimately impact the employee experience in a negative way,” she adds.
More often than not, confronting your boss about the way they act isn’t an option. Even if you have concrete examples of their bad behaviour, it could easily backfire and leave your job in jeopardy. If you have a HR department, they may be able to help if your complaint is anonymous.
Instead, it’s safer to recognise why your manager is power playing and understand their routines and habits, Shaheen says. Understanding why the power tripper acts a certain way may help you acknowledge and deal with their actions, as well as work with them.
“The foresight will better prepare you for the changes to come and help you formulate better action plans next time your boss engages in a power play,” Shaheen says. “Acknowledging that a power play is happening will allow both sides to be on the same page and open up a safe space for these conversations to happen, should they need to address it again down the line.
“By addressing it head on with managers, employees can not only get at the root of the problem, but also improve their team and experience as an employee working under that manager.”
As a manager, Shaheen adds, knowing your own management personality, tendencies and habits is key to succeeding in your role – regardless of whether you're a brand new manager or a seasoned veteran.
“If you recognise your power player tendencies as a manager, understand how it impacts your coaching skills and direct reports, then work towards improving your tendencies from there to become a better manager, coach and colleague,” she says.