Identifying and dealing with your "negative boss" and "negative peer managers"


We discuss a special breed of managers termed “Negative Managers.” These managers are not capable of handling their responsibilities and hence resort to undue means to hide their incapability, such as unethical behavior, lies, cunningness, politics, ill-manners, and so forth. Capable project managers generally expect the HR department to identify negative managers around them and take actions. However, negative managers act in such a subtle fashion that it may take a very long time for HR to identify them; by that time they would have caused significant harm to you. Hence, instead, we suggest you stop living in a bubble and proactively accept the responsibility of identifying and dealing with negative managers, and reporting them to HR. We present ways to identify and deal with your “Negative Boss” and “Negative Peer Managers.” We present case studies from leading global software product and services organizations, such as Novell Inc., QLogic Inc., and Mindteck.


A “Negative Manager” is a manager who is incapable of handling his or her responsibilities, but hides his or her incapabilities from the organization. He or she covers up his or her shortcomings by resorting to undue means — unethical behavior, lies, cunningness, politics, ill-manners, and so forth.

Unfortunately, capable project managers consider the issue of identifying and dealing with negative managers around them as purely an “HR problem.” They keep waiting for the HR department to identify negative managers and take actions.

We, instead, suggest you, as a project manager, stop living in a bubble and proactively accept the responsibility of identifying and dealing with negative managers around you and reporting the problem to HR.

The actions of negative managers are negatively impacting you, your team, your work environment, and project deliverables. Hence, you are the one who should adopt appropriate measures to protect yourself from harm.

Further, negative managers act in very subtle fashion so it may take a very long time for HR to identify them. Significant damage could have already been done to you if you keep waiting for HR to handle this responsibility.

Instead, if you act in a proactive fashion and expose a negative manager early to HR/top management, his or her actions would come into HR's radar; hence, his or her future efforts to harm you by painting you negatively in front of HR/top management will fail.

Although, it is HR's responsibility to apply psychological techniques to reform negative managers, HR will still need your detailed inputs on the behavioral patterns of a negative manager with his or her peers and reportees in order to choose the appropriate psychological techniques to reform him or her.

We start by discussing the related work in the domain of applying psychological techniques to handle inter-personal relationships. We then describe the methods used, which you can identify and deal with your “Negative Boss.” We then describe methods to identify and handle “Negative Peer Managers.” We conclude by presenting case studies from leading global software product and services organizations, such as Novell Inc., QLogic Inc., and Mindteck.

Related Work

Our work builds upon, extends, and complements the related work in literature on application of psychological techniques to handle interpersonal relationships.

Transaction Analysis (TA) theory (Berne, 1964; Berne, 1975a; Berne, 1975b) states that the way individuals transact with each other is due to their being in one of three ego states — “parent” state, in which they behave like their parents behaved; “child” state, in which they behave as they used to behave in their childhood; or “adult” state, in which they behave maturely after objectively evaluating the facts.

TA introduces a concept called ‘games’ that imply a complicated transaction in which the latent meaning of the communication is quite different from the words spoken (Berne, 1964). Individuals must sense the game being played by others and respond accordingly or else they will suffer. The behavior of the negative managers can be mapped to “Second Degree” games under TA – the games that are played in a clandestine fashion and can cause significant harm to you (i.e., your career).

It has been discussed (Damle, 2010) that you should pay attention to the games other managers play, to ferret out the true tenor of communication, and to respond by putting on the suitable cap of an ‘adult,’ ‘parent,’ or a ‘child.’

However, all the above studies assume that you can decipher the games being played by negative managers to deal with them. Unfortunately, negative managers behave in a very cunning and subtle fashion and are able to hide the fact that they are playing games. It has also been stated (Damle, 2010) that if you are unable to sense the game, you are certainly going to lose; thus, you need to learn techniques to identify the games being played by negative managers. We are suggesting multiple such techniques.

Further, the above works suggest mechanisms to deal with the game being played only in an individual transaction (i.e., the current transaction), so the solutions are short-term. The actions of negative managers can cause long-term harm to your career; thus, we also present mechanisms to neutralize their actions on a long-term basis.

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) states that one's behavior is dominated more by one's beliefs than by actual stimulus (Ellis, 1962; Froggatt, 1990–2001). A person with positive beliefs does not grumble about unfavorable conditions, does not indulge in self-blame on failures, and uses his or her positive energy to tackle a negative event to ameliorate its unfavorable consequence.

The behavior of a negative manager can influence your beliefs, and your line of thinking on a subject matter may get distracted, resulting in your making wrong decisions. It is suggested (Damle, 2010) that you should harness REBT to keep the unnecessary influence from polluting your own rational belief system. By sticking to your positive beliefs, you would be able to succeed in your tasks.

However, negative managers not only impact your beliefs but also negatively influence the people and work environment around you, so sticking to your beliefs alone may still make you fail due to these external factors. You would need to take some additional steps to totally neutralize these external influences of negative managers, as described in this paper.

Company HR managers generally interpret the personality types and negative behaviors of project managers and reform them by applying appropriate psychological techniques. HR reforms negative managers by either one of these techniques:

• Sharpening their “Adult” ego mode (TA)

• Inculcating in them a positive belief system (REBT)

• Applying other well-known psychological techniques (Hall, 1997; Kelly, 2009; Myers, 1995; McGuinness, 2007)

However, to achieve this objective, HR needs to interpret the personalities and detailed behavior patterns of these negative managers, to be able to map them to known personality types to decide the requisite therapy. The techniques presented by us would allow you to decipher a large number of the behavior patterns of a negative manager and report them to HR; hence, our work complements TA, REBT, and other approaches in this respect.

It has also been discussed (Damle, 2010) that some managers have personality disorders, such as being paranoid/histrionic/narcissistic and mechanisms have been suggested to dealing with these disorders.

However, our work is different from the above work, because a negative manager is not suffering from an inherent personality disorder over which he or she has no control. He or she is deliberately engaging in negative behavior to hide his or her limitations, so different techniques are required to handle such behavior, as presented in this paper.

The Negative Boss

Identifying your “Negative Boss”

You should look for the following behavioral patterns to determine if your boss is less capable than you and is acting negatively:

  1. He or she cannot apply scientific methods of management. However, he or she remembers these management theories by heart and can quote them at length in front of the top management. Hence, the top management does not believe that the project deliverables are failing due to his or her lack of management skills. He or she fools them into believing that the failures are due to the lack of skills of his or her reporting team.
  2. Due to his or her lack of understanding of scientific management methods, he or she can never judge the capability of his or her reporting managers. If you are ensuring that scientific management processes are being followed, project targets are being met, and all issues are under control, then he or she concludes that you are not working hard! Instead, he or she is happy when an incapable reportee manager regularly creates crises, is always fire fighting, and his or her team always looks hassled. He or she believes that it is a good scenario since the team always “looks busy” and the manager always “works hard.”
  3. He or she does not think long term. Most of his or her decisions are made instantly to fight the current fire, although these may lead to bigger fires later. If questioned about the consequence of his or her decision on encountering possible future events, he or she has no answers and uses expressions like “we will cross the bridge when we reach there.”
  4. He or she picks up ideas from his or her reportees and presents them to top management as his or her own ideas. In fact, some smart reportees even misuse this fact to their advantage. They feed wrong ideas to him or her, which promote their personal agendas. Since he or she cannot comprehend the motive behind the ideas being fed to him or her, he or she invariably ends up implementing them in his or her group, to the dismay of his or her other reportees.
  5. He or she feels insecure of having more capable reportees under him or her, because he or she fears that in the future they may outperform him or her and finally replace him or her. Hence, he or she recruits less capable reportees. When the top management interacts with him or her and his or her team, his or her lack of skills is not exposed since he or she is surrounded by more incapable persons. Thus, comparatively, he or she looks capable to top management.
  6. However, this process of recruiting incapable reportees significantly hurts the organization in the long run. He or she recruits incapable managers. These incapable managers recruit even more incapable reportees. Hence, in the long run, the company is infested with very incapable managers at all levels.
  7. He or she avoids having open channels of communication with his or her capable reportee managers since he or she knows that if he or she talks in front of them, his or her incapability would be exposed. Instead, he or she always has open channels for incapable managers and they keep sharing inane management ideas at length among them.
  8. He or she will try all means to get rid of you, if he or she realizes that you are more capable than him or her. He or she would ensure that your capabilities are not revealed to top management. If a complex problem is encountered, he or she is aware that his or her incapable reportees cannot handle it. Hence, he or she would smartly couple you with his or her incapable reportees as a “team” to tackle the problem. If you are able to provide a solution, he or she would make you share the credit with incapable reportees since they worked together as a “team.” He or she may even hide the fact that you found the solution, and give all the credit to the incapable reportees.
  9. He would always paint a more positive image of his or her incapable reportees, as compared to you, in front of top management. He or she will promote incapable reportees but would not give you a growth path.
  10. He or she would get to know your dislikes, either during your job interview or in the course of your stay in the organization. He or she would then ensure that your work environment and responsibilities are as per your dislikes, to provoke you to leave. For example, if he or she knows your technical domain of interest, he or she would ensure that you are never assigned projects to be managed in that domain. If you dislike long meetings, he or she would deliberately prolong his or her meetings with you, etc.; hence, you are always unhappy with your work.
  11. However, if all means to discourage you to make you leave the organization fail, then he or she will resort to sending you insulting mails with personal attacks and mark mail copies to your reportee team and your peers. The aim is to provoke you to respond in a similar fashion. If you respond with curt mail, he or she will distort the contents and use them to play more politics by sharing your curt responses with the top management without informing them of his or her provocations.

Dealing with your “Negative Boss”

After you have noticed the above behavior patterns, you would have identified that your boss is negative. You should first have a one-on-one talk with him or her and letting him or her know how his or her behavior is impacting your performance. If your boss can provide genuine reasons for his or her behavior, then he or she may not be negative as you had assumed. Alternatively, even if he or she had been negative, after this conversation he or she should realize his or her mistakes and should stop behaving in that fashion. However, if none of the above happens and his or her negative behavior continues as before then it is a confirmed case of his or her being a negative boss and would need to be dealt with in the following ways:

1. Ensure that he is or she is not able to hide your capabilities from the top management. Showcase your capabilities to all through participation in company-wide committees/forums, by holding company-wide lectures to present your successes and innovative methodologies, presenting papers in national and global conferences, etc.

2. Expose his or her negative behavior by retaining written records of his or her misdemeanors. He or she would insist on having his or her negative communication with you in verbal form, since he or she does not want any written records that can make him or her accountable. You should insist on written communication from him or her. If he or she communicates orally in a meeting with you, then after the meeting send an email to him or her summarizing the contents of his or her discussions and your responses. Retain these emails since you may need to share them with HR in the future.

3. If he or she is sending you insulting emails, then do not get provoked and send similar curt responses. Separate the content portion of the mail, which attacks some actions you may have taken, from the insulting tone of the email. Respond with two separate emails to him or her. In one email, respond objectively to each point in the content of the mail by justifying the reasons for your actions. Send another email, making it amply clear to him or her that his or her insulting language is unwarranted.

4. If you have realized that he or she is going to harm your career, then escalate his or her negative actions to HR before it is too late. You should mark copies to HR of the above responses you are sending to his or her insulting emails. You should also share information about all his or her prior negative actions, for HR to take appropriate measures. HR can then apply TA, REBT, and other methods to reform him or her.

5. Build good relations with your boss’ peers to be able to switch to their groups in the future, if things get totally out of control. Your participation in committees and conducting company-wide lectures would have already apprised them of your capabilities.

Negative Peer Managers

Identifying your “Negative Peer Manager”

We suggest you look for the following behavior patterns to identify if your peer manager is acting negatively:

  1. He or she will try to bring you down in the eyes of the boss by talking negative about you behind your back. However, he or she knows that the boss may not believe his or her adverse comments. So he or she plays smart and fools the boss by first praising you by saying that you are capable; but would then also add that you are taking some wrong actions. He or she would then use the opportunity to repetitively talk negative about your actions. The boss does not realize that he or she is playing politics but thinks that since he or she was praising you, he or she is your “well wisher” and is “genuinely” raising some concerns. Hence, slowly, the boss starts gaining a negative impression about you.

2. He or she may also get together with another negative peer manager and they would separately backbite against you to the boss. Hence, the boss now gets “corroboration” of your wrong doings and hence does not need to investigate further. Falsehood becomes truth for the boss and your career gets impacted.

3. If he or she is working with you in a team project, he or she takes credit of successful tasks and blames the failed tasks on you.

4.      If the organization reporting structures are very complex or are not well-defined, then he or she will misuse the loopholes in the organization structure to claim and exert undue control over your team, to harm your projects.

5.      He or she may agree with you on some issues to be raised with the top management. However, you should never trust him or her to support you when you raise the issue in the meeting with top management. In the meeting, he or she first waits for top management to state their viewpoint on the issue and then supports it vehemently, even if it goes against his or her previous stated opinion.

6.      He or she can go to any extent to cause harm to you and does not even care about the company's interest while acting negatively.

Dealing with a “Negative Peer Manager”

Some suggested ways to deal with your negative peer manager are:

1.      Avoid sharing with him or her information about the progress of your ongoing projects and details of your team since he or she can potentially misuse any such information against you. He or she would always try to sweet talk you into revealing such details but be wise enough to know what his or her true intentions are.

2.      If you become aware of his or her spreading canards about you to your boss then confront him or her in front of your boss with true facts and expose him or her. The worst thing a negative manager is scared of is being confronted with the truth. Convey to him or her firmly that he or she should not resort to such acts in the future. At the end of the meeting, send an email with the gist of the discussion to all participants, and mark a copy to HR

3.      If he or she is working with you as a peer in a large team project, then keep your boss informed about clear division of activities between the two of you. Keep your boss aware of the progress of your tasks through written communications, with copies to the peer manager/team. Hence, the peer manager will not be able to get opportunities to take credit of your successes and blame his or her failures on you.

4.      If your organization's reporting structures are not well-defined and are allowing your peer manager to exert undue control over your team and projects, then raise the issue with your boss and HR and insist on well-defined organization structure that gives you complete authority over your team/projects.

Case Studies

We now present various case studies from leading global organizations, describing the behavior patterns of Negative Bosses/Peer Managers and we suggest how to deal with such behaviors.

Case Study #1

A company had distributed software teams in the Head Office (HO) and Regional Office (RO). The RO Director was reporting to the HO VP-Engineering. The existing Director left the company, and the VP had to hire a new Director. During the interview process, the VP “failed” to truly judge the capabilities of candidates and ended up hiring a new Director who was more capable than him!

After the previous Director had left, the VP had assigned impossible to meet targets to the RO team by pressurizing its managers in the absence of the Director. As was expected, the new Director was coming up to speed after joining and hence the intermediate project targets were missed. By then, the VP had been able to judge the capabilities of the new Director and had realized that the Director was more capable than him. The VP started feeling insecure and decided that he must present the new Director in a bad light. Hence, he reported to top management that the intermediate targets had been missed without informing them that these were stretch targets. Hence, the new Director had to face negative comments from the top management almost immediately after his joining.

Further, the VP clearly told the Director that it was his responsibility to bring the project back on track and he would be held accountable for it, and not his reportee managers.

The Director decided to accept the challenge and took some drastic measures:

  • Introduced innovative management methodologies/processes to speed up the project
  • Re-prioritized work
  • Took direct control of critical modules, etc.

Hence, he was able to meet the final stretch targets to the “dismay” of the VP!

The Director was expecting due recognition for his accomplishment. However, at the time of his appraisal, the VP calmly told the Director that he had delivered since he had a strong reporting management team! It was interesting, since the VP had earlier told that the Director that he (and not his reportee managers) would be solely accountable if the project slipped but when the project succeeded, all the credit was given to the reportee managers.

The VP also had some managers in HO reporting directly to him, who were executing some other modules of the same project. The VP's own team slipped on its tasks. Hence, the project, as a whole, slipped its deadline.

The VP hid this fact from the top management that the project was delayed because the modules being delivered by his direct reporting HO team were delayed. He gave a convoluted logic to the Director that since both the HO and RO teams are working together as a unit, he should not distinguish between their performances!

Further, he also promoted incapable managers within HO team, who had failed to deliver, to hide the fact from the top management that they had failed. No growth was provided to the RO Director to hide the fact that he had over-performed.


The Director should have opened channels of communication with the top management and insisted on having regular status review meetings, where both he and VP could share details of the projects, successes and issues to the top management. Hence, VP would not have been able to distort facts of project successes and contributions of the Director from the top management, since the Director would be present in such meetings.

The Director should have also held company-wide lecture sessions to share the approaches he had devised and applied to meet tough project schedules. This important topic would have attracted top management to attend the sessions. These sessions would have helped him convey to top management his contributions in meeting the tough challenges of stretch project schedules.

The Director should also have participated in company-wide committees that focused on evolving new and efficient project management methodologies. He should have contributed the innovative methodologies he had devised to meeting his project schedules to the committee, to help the company evolve efficient project management methodologies for the future. He would have then been valued by the company as a whole. The VP would then not have been able to appraise him unfairly, since the top management would have become aware of his capabilities.

Case Study #2

A startup company was founded by a purely technical person as Managing Director (MD) in the United States. He had never managed a team in his career. He ended up hiring an incapable CTO and CFO to serve under him in the United States.

The company had been running a small Offshore Development Center (ODC) in India. The MD decided to significantly expand the ODC and hence hired a senior capable GM in India as the ODC Head. The peers of the GM (the company CFO and CTO in the United States, started feeling insecure by the GM's presence in India. They feared that as more responsibilities are transferred to ODC, the GM may end up hiring more capable CFO and CTO within India and all their responsibilities would also be transferred. Hence, both of them decided to collaborate to poison the MD against the ODC GM.

The GM wanted to hire senior managers but noticed that current salary levels were much lower than market salaries in India. Hence, he requested a salary survey. CFO struck down the idea by the reasoning that being a startup they should control costs by not spending on such surveys! Hence, the GM started hiring at the industry salary levels he was aware of. However, each time he wanted to give a job offer to a capable manager, the CFO objected, saying that the salary offer is “high” without any justification. Since the MD had no knowledge of salary levels in India, he fell back on the opinion of his CTO, who conveniently supported CFO's viewpoint. Hence, no offers could be made.

The CFO and CTO, instead, kept blaming the lack of senior people in the ODC on the GM's inability to attract good talent. The CTO, cunningly, even directly hired some incapable managers in ODC just to prove that managers can be hired if effort is made!

Left with the option to work with only a young team, the GM trained and groomed them to be project managers/leads. They started taking up higher responsibilities and were even able to interact directly with their U.S. counterpart managers. Since the CTO could not raise other objections, he distorted this fact by informing the MD that the GM was interacting less with managers in HO and making less trips to the United States!

Further, the GM also introduced flextime, so that teams across India and the United States can interact during overlapping time zones. The CTO and CFO distorted this fact by informing the MD that the India team does not come on time in the morning, hiding the fact that they were interacting with U.S. team late at night!

The differences between the GM and U.S. management became irreconcilable and the GM finally left.

The U.S. management team took direct control of the ODC. But all the earlier negative actions of the CTO and CFO started backfiring. Since the project management layer in ODC was now no longer given the management responsibilities, the U.S. managers had to manage large distributed teams, and failed to deliver. Since no flextime existed, both U.S. and India teams worked at their regular office hours, with no overlap times, leading to lack of essential inter-location project interactions. Further, senior incapable persons hired directly by the CTO in the ODC ruined ongoing projects.

Company deliverables were significantly impacted due to a weak ODC. Finally, within a year of the ODC GM leaving the company, the global company underwent a fire sale by being sold for just US$25 million from its earlier valuation of US$250 million a year ago.


The GM should have insisted on having regular status review calls with the MD. In these calls, he should have formally presented the progress of activities within the ODC, initiatives taken, successes and issues, to keep the MD apprised of all facts.

In these discussions, the GM could have sensed any negative vibes coming from the MD. He should have then intelligently guessed that the MD is receiving false and negative feedback about him from the CTO and CFO. He should have countered this propaganda by objectively presenting the true facts to the MD. Further, during his visits to United States, he should have insisted on extended meetings with the MD, CFO, and CTO, where he would have confronted them with the truth and exposed their nefarious designs to the MD.

He should have made efforts to convince the MD to give him complete authority to make decisions about the ODC, since he was more knowledgeable about the employee expectations/capabilities, work culture and industry salary norms in India. Hence, he could have been able to avoid undue interference in the ODC from CTO and CFO in the United States.

Case Study #3

A software services company had an incapable General Manager (GM). He had a more capable Manager “A” under him, and was feeling insecure about him. The GM decided to hire other managers less capable than him. In his previous company, he had a reportee manager “B”; that company had outsourced a large 50-member software development project to a services company and “B” was coordinating this task. The GM hired “B” by wrongly informing the top management that “B” was actually “managing” that large team.

A team was to be selected to visit a global software product giant to win projects. The GM decided to have “A” in the team because he had the capability to win the orders, but also tagged along his favorite “B.” The team ended up winning two pilot project orders from the customer. “A” was responsible for winning one of these orders and was made the project head for the pilot project with a six-person team. The pilot was executed successfully, and the highly satisfied customer decided to assign to them a three-year software development lab of 67 persons.

The GM was now worried that if “A” starts handling such a big responsibility, “A” could become his competition. The GM informed the top management that the project was won by the “team” of “A” and “B,” and hence “B” is as much aware of the project as “A” is. Interestingly, when the team had visited the customer location, only “A” was in that project meeting, since “B” was in a separate project meeting!

Further, the GM convinced the top management that “B” had “managed” large projects in his earlier company, and “A” did not have experience in handling such a large team; so, the GM convinced the top management to make “B” the project head of the lab.

Since “B” had never managed a software project and had only been handling project coordination activities, he failed to deliver. The intermediate targets started getting missed and a number of warnings were received from the customer. “B” smartly hid the negative feedback of the customer from the GM for a long time, so no corrective measures could be applied.

After the first major project delivery date, the customer team expressed their total disappointment with the results and reduced the lab size from 67 to only 30.

The GM now realized that they would be unable to deliver without involving “A” in the activity and could end up losing the lab totally. Hence, he asked “A” to rejoin the team, but report to “B”! “A” refused to be demoted to being just a manager for a project for which he was the project head for the pilot.

“A,” instead, offered to execute some critical modules of the project within his team, outside of the lab. The mechanism worked to the good of all, because “A” kept on delivering on critical issues and also kept customer tempers under control by effectively using the earlier good relations he had developed with the customer managers during the pilot execution.


“A” should have kept company top management in the loop about the ongoing pilot project and made them aware that he won the pilot and was leading the activity. On completion of the pilot project, he should have held company-wide sessions, inviting the top management, presenting detailed techniques applied for success of the pilot. If he had become visible to all then the GM would not have been able to blur his contributions from the top management.

Further, during pilot project execution, “A” should have also developed close personal relationship with the customer managers, and asked them to apply pressure on the organization by insisted on having “A” as the Lab Head, post execution of the pilot.


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© 2012, Vimal Kumar Khanna
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada



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