Productive Leaders

Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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How To Stay Motivated With a Bad Boss

Even when someone loves their work, there’s no guarantee that they love their job.

This has less to do with the actual position, and more to do with a problematic boss. People don’t quit jobs, they quit their bosses. Half of employees who quit their jobs cite bad management as the main reason they leave. For many individuals, leaving behind their source of income isn’t an easy option. Fortunately, there are ways that employees can stay motivated when working with subpar supervision.

Focus on the Actual Motivating Factor

Everyone typically has a motivating factor for holding a job.  Some people want to help a certain segment of the population.  For example, when asked, most people who work in health care claim that helping people is the prime reason they got into their profession. Others are motivated to work to pay bills. Still others want jobs to learn new skills and be challenged.  

All workers are affected by their direct supervisor and leadership at work.  Employees call in sick at far higher rates when they have bad bosses. Employees get frustrated with poor leadership, but they need to remember that the supervisor isn’t the reason why they’re working.

Some people are intrinsically motivation – they behave a certain way, and they work hard because that behavior is deeply satisfying to them.  Other are more affected by extrinsic factors, which means that what their supervisor does affects them as they try to either earn a reward or to avoid a punishment. 

By focusing on why employees wanted the job in the first place, and focusing on the intrinsic factors, workers become more skilled at not allowing managers to destroy their motivation.

Become Indispensable to the Company

Even employees who don’t particularly enjoy their supervisor’s management style can love the job they do. While problem supervisors can decrease an employee’s drive to perform at peak levels, it’s important to remember that becoming indispensable to a company has far more benefits than just bringing in additional revenue.

One recent study found “external hires were 61% more likely to be fired” than individuals who are promoted from within. This means that openings in an organization are more likely to go to current employees who have shown how indispensable they are.

A promotion often means a staff member is no longer under the same supervisor.  Working to become indispensable that leads to career advancement away from a bad bosses can motivate a worker to stay focused on the job instead of focusing on the frustrating supervisor. 

Set Goals and Self-Evaluate

One of the common signs of a bad manager is the lack of helpful performance reviews. While these types of evaluations are becoming less common, in general, lazy supervisors often fail to provide any feedback at all. In these situations, employees can stay motivated by setting their own goals and then performing honest self-evaluations. Many individuals benefit from working through the 5-Minute Career Plan, which identifies what gives them motivation, satisfaction, and focus at work.

By taking the time to self-lead, workers hold themselves accountable. Of course, patting oneself on the back isn’t always a great motivator, so employees should find ways to reward themselves when they meet their goals. 

Build a Mutual Support System

If one employee feels they’re dealing with a bad manager, it’s likely that others in the department feel the same way. This can become especially demoralizing if some workers are benefiting from the favoritism that is perceived to take place at 84 percent of all organizations. In these situations, coworkers can motivate themselves by motivating others.

“You did a great job on that project” is auditory gold for employees who aren’t recognized by management. When one co-worker starts this habit, others will typically get in on the encouragement as well. Many company workforces agree to provide mutual praise to each other in the absence of organizational recognition. 

Overcome Motivational Destroyers

Everyone will encounter at least one terrible boss in their lifetime, but it’s important that they don’t become a victim in these scenarios. Everyone understands why workers would be less involved and productive when dealing with bad management, but in most cases, there are no benefits to be garnered from mere complaining. By remaining motivated and not allowing inept supervisors to ruin their day, good employees can create their own positive work environment.

When I was in the Navy I was told, “Don’t ever let one job, one location, or one boss dictate your decision about being in the Navy.”  Bosses will come and go. Many organizations will help motivated employees move into a position that allows them to thrive, even if that means a different department or a different location.  

Great organizational leaders know that supervision is deeply personal. What works for one employee may not work for another. Jane may think Sarah is an amazing boss, while Mia cannot stand Sarah’s management. Senior leaders try to mitigate the effects that less effective supervisors have on the team, and they work to keep all employees motivated.


  1. John Aguirre

    This is an excellent article; thank you very much for sharing.
    I always look forward to these!

    • Mary Kelly

      I appreciate your feedback, John!

  2. Sherry

    What a great article filled with fresh insight for those of us dealing with this situation! I’m going to read this article again and start setting myself personal goals in the office! Sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us and you really offered very good suggestions, insights and ideas.

    Thank you-
    (feeling motivated!)

    • Mary Kelly

      So glad to hear this article motivated you, Sherry. Thank you!


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