By Fortune Editors
September 8, 2011

By Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, contributors

FORTUNE — There’s a decent chance you saw the movie “Horrible Bosses” this summer.

A comedy about three men in different jobs who decide to murder their awful bosses, it was one of the season’s surprise hits. On its opening weekend, it was the second-highest grossing film. It has become the highest-grossing dark comedy of all time worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.

Obviously, the film struck a chord. Who hasn’t suffered an awful boss somewhere along the line? We’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees with the truism that people join companies but quit bosses.

But in our experience, not every instance of a “horrible boss” is entirely the fault of the boss. In fact, many instances are not. Most bosses, we’ve found, usually mean well, more or less, but they don’t often do well. The difference is usually driven by ignorance of what they should be doing and how people are responding to their words and actions. In fact, bosses and their staff often tumble into a downward spiral of action-misunderstanding-reaction that feeds on itself and ultimately produces a relationship so toxic it can’t be recovered.

If you believe your boss is horrible, we propose some questions you should answer before you do anything drastic like quitting — or worse.

Are you performing up to expectations?

If not, why would you expect to have a great relationship with someone who must explain your shortcomings to his or her superiors? If you’re falling short, you and your boss need to talk about why that’s the case, what you can do about it, and what really should be expected of you. If you haven’t done that, you should take responsibility and initiate that discussion.

What emotional baggage are you bringing into the relationship?

Your current boss isn’t the first authority figure you’ve encountered. Even if you’re just entering the workforce, you’ve already experienced a string of them, starting with your parents and extending through older siblings, schoolyard bullies, teachers, coaches, and a host of others. The sum of those experiences and the lessons you’ve drawn from them, usually in the form of unspoken assumptions, shape how you deal with and what you expect from every new authority figure, such as your current boss.

Are your complaints about your boss similar to your complaints about earlier bosses or other authority figures?

If so, that’s a red flag. An acquaintance of ours tells of finding fault with all his early bosses until he realized, after 10 years, that they all suffered the same fault, and that fault, unsurprisingly, was the problem he had with his own father growing up. With bosses, as elsewhere in life, we tend to focus on evidence for beliefs and conclusions we already hold. If you’ve already concluded that authority figures can’t be trusted, you’ll probably mistrust every new boss you have.

Are you able to see your boss as a person?

Under that cloak of authority, there’s a person just like you, the product of her unique background, training, and experience, with hopes, fears, frustrations, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses. Do you know enough of this personal dimension that you can begin to see the world through her eyes? Knowing why an ogre is an ogre may not change her, but it will free you to think more creatively about your options for dealing with her.

Above all, do you take at least some responsibility for the relationship?

If it’s not what you want, have you made a serious effort to talk over your issues with your boss? Or do you feel passive and helpless? Do you feel the relationship is entirely controlled by the boss because he’s the one with the clout? Is it conceivable to you that some of your boss’s behavior might be a reaction to you? Have you tried to see yourself through your boss’s eyes?

We see many subordinates, including managers, who assume (perhaps because of the baggage we noted earlier) that they have no control over or ability to shape their relationship with someone in authority. They overlook the fact that, though it’s not a relationship of equals, it is still a two-way relationship in which each person needs the other to succeed, and that gives them some ability to negotiate.

Don’t misunderstand. There are horrible bosses. But until you’ve thought through the questions we’ve raised here, you cannot tell what exactly is horrible — your boss or your relationship with your boss. If it’s truly your boss, your only option may be to leave. But if it’s the relationship, you need to shoulder some responsibility for it and then take action to change it.

Linda A. Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Kent Lineback, a writer with 30 years of management experience, are co-authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader.


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