DEALING WITH THE PROBLEM BOSS Tough times make bad chiefs worse. The standard wisdom on them may not go far enough. Ready for the idea of employee abuse?

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Captain Queeg. Mr. Dithers. Harold Geneen. Frank Lorenzo. Just about everyone carries with him an image, cartoon or otherwise, of the boss from hell. A disconcerting proportion of employees -- nearly 75% in one study -- report having suffered at the hands of a difficult superior. No wonder, then, that articles on how to deal with such a beast have become a staple for the business and self-help press under titles like ''The Intolerable Boss'' or ''When Bad Bosses Happen to Good People.'' And yet for all the attention the subject has received, is it possible that we still don't sufficiently appreciate the enormity of the bad-boss problem? All too possible, argues Mardy Grothe, a Boston psychologist and consultant and the co-author of Problem Bosses: Who They Are and How to Deal With Them (Ballantine Books, $4.95). ''When magazines write articles about problem bosses, the unspoken implication is that these are the exceptions,'' says Grothe. ''But they aren't -- they're the rule.'' He adds that ''some of the most kind, loving, caring people'' are the most difficult superiors. To drive home the point, Grothe cites a telling irony: While almost every manager has complaints about his boss, only a tiny minority bother to think about how they may be a burden to their subordinates.

''You mean,'' the sickening realization dawns, ''that I, admittedly tough- minded but also relentlessly empowering I, might be a . . .'' Yes, according to Grothe's logic, about which more below. At the very least, it behooves you to consider the managerial wisdom on problem bosses in two lights: for what it may tell you about your annoying superior, and for what it may say about how you come across to underlings. FOR A TAXONOMY of afflictive taskmasters, one could do a lot worse than to ask Harry Levinson, head of the Levinson Institute in Belmont, Massachusetts, and as eminent a psychologist to management as America affords today. He cites five types: -- The ''basic narcissistic guy'' -- or gal: So constant is his need for applause that he will usurp plaudits rightfully due subordinates, whom he may otherwise neglect because he's so busy playing to outside audiences. -- The boss whose attempts to ''compensate for underlying feelings of helplessness manifest themselves in overcontrol, hostility, and efforts to whip people into shape.'' He's not tough, says Levinson; he's sadistic. -- The ''perfectionist Type A boss, always running his motor.'' He puts inordinate pressure on people to spend time on the job, but almost nothing they do is good enough to please him. -- The boss, maybe a successful entrepreneur, who develops a product or method and then becomes fixated on technology. -- The too nice boss who, often under guise of embracing participative management, won't take charge, use his clout on subordinates' behalf, or give them an honest account of how they're doing. SOME OF THE EXPERTS -- psychologists, consultants, professors of management -- report that over time they have seen changes in the kinds of problem bosses that subordinates complain about. The movement to empower employees may have brought more of the overly nice types to the fore. In other organizations, perfectionist bosses can take the trendy goal of achieving continuous improvement as a license to kill. Levinson says that greater pressure on managers at almost all levels -- from restructuring, say, or recession -- has ''tended to exacerbate the basic tendencies'': The narcissists get more narcissistic, the sadists more sadistic, and so on. But note what else a change in the incidence of bothersome bosses suggests: Could it be that the problem isn't just the psychopathology of Mr. or Ms. Dithers, but is as much a function of the expectations of subordinates, of what they want and don't want from their nominal superior? Thus, in a more participative milieu, it becomes a headache if the boss won't bring seemingly endless discussions to a close, or use his authority to get people the resources they need. ''Wimp'' supplants ''petty tyrant'' as the standard term of derogation. We're talking here about seeing the situation with El Impossibilio not as ''He's screwed up,'' but instead as -- low-key New Music fanfare, please -- a troubled relationship. ''Yuck,'' you respond, ''more human-resources psychobabble. What's next -- a 12-step recovery program for the victims of bad bosses?'' WAKE UP, buster, or busterette, and smell the coffee fueling the support ; group. For one thing, much of the popular literature on managing has been headed this way -- toward thinking in terms of relationships -- for at least a decade. The One Minute Manager, you may recall, was patterned after a text on parenting, that most basic of relationships. For another, the most sophisticated advice on handling problem bosses has always proceeded on the premise that this is a two-way street. Such counsel usually begins with an injunction to look at yourself. Are you doing anything to irritate the boss? Banal but important advice: Try to put yourself in his Cole-Haan loafers or her Bruno Magli pumps. What is she trying to accomplish? What pressures beset her? What does she want from you? ''Keep looking for common ground,'' advises Morgan W. McCall Jr., a professor of management at the University of Southern California. With a collaborator, McCall asked 73 successful executives about their experience with intolerable bosses. Fully 54 reported they had had such a superior, and -- perhaps more surprising -- many of those said they had learned a lot from the encounter, if only about dealing with adversity and what not to do as a manager. After reviewing various coping strategies, notably changing one's own behavior to improve the relationship, the literature on problem bosses usually gets around to how to confront the obnoxious person directly, if all else has failed. Many cautions here: Know the culture of your organization, and to what extent it countenances such behavior. Even more important, study the boss thoroughly, and why he acts the bad ways he does, to figure out how to approach him. Harry Levinson explains: ''Recognize that what you're going to say has to support the adaptive aspect of his personality'' -- the method of coping he has evolved, even if it's precisely this method that gives you fits. Only after couching the message this way should you tell him how his behavior interferes with your getting the job done: ''Boss, you've really made it clear how we all have to be shooting for higher standards of quality, and I admire how you've led the charge on this one, but too often you don't tell me precisely what you want, and my work falls short and I despair.'' Then, of course, offer alternatives for improving the situation: ''To help me meet your goals, could we talk at greater length when you give me an assignment, or schedule weekly meetings to go over what I'm doing?'' Yes, this smacks of toadyism. But, whispers the still small voice of modern $ managerialism, you're working on a relationship here, and in one of those, you often have to give way a bit. The more damning criticism of even the most enlightened confrontational strategies is that they seldom beget any significant change. Many of the experts, while maintaining that the spread of participative management has made it easier for subordinates to approach problem bosses, concede as much. In his study, after citing the ''rarity of open resistance'' to intolerable superiors, McCall notes that in only six situations did a subordinate's efforts to change the boss's behavior have much effect. WHY ARE such bad relationships so intractable? Psychologist Grothe, a big fan of the r-word, offers an explanation. First, for all our efforts to minimize hierarchy, the higher-up still has more power than the lower-downs. Robert Silzer, of the Personnel Decisions firm in New York City, notes that in many corners of corporate America, the terms ''boss'' and ''subordinate'' are falling out of favor, replaced by locutions like ''team leader'' and ''direct report.'' But while the boss may have changed his title or style, at some deep-down level, where one person finally, when he has to, exercises power over another, he remains the boss. The corollary to this, according to Grothe: ''In any two-person relationship, the person who has the least power will hurt more.'' What we don't appreciate, he maintains, is the extent of the hurt. This is because the typical boss ''just has no idea what a powerful effect he has on the emotional health of his employees.'' Once again, think about your own boss, even if she's a paragon: how much time you spend mulling over your dealings with her, how often you talk with others about her, how nettlesome even some of her well-meaning words or gestures can sometimes seem. DOES THIS provide any insight into how large you loom in the eyes of your subordinates? Or how sensitive they may be to your occasional bad mood or impatience? As they find a vocabulary to describe their experience, they may become more sensitive. Says Grothe: ''I hope that five years from now we'll talk about employee abuse and neglect in the same way we've learned over the last ten years to talk about the abuse and neglect of children and women.'' The next stage in the spread of I-am-a-victim psychology throughout our society? Perhaps. But with import for subordinates and bosses alike. For subordinates: Yes, you are locked in a relationship, for which you bear some responsibility. How much perfectability can you expect of it? Any more than you expect from your other relationships? For bosses: Remember Emerson's observation, ''Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass'' -- ready to shatter at the first misstep. While managing is no crime, to be a manager is to work through a world of glass, your every gesture magnified, fragility everywhere around.