How to deal with a difficult boss

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Work relationships play a key role in job satisfaction, especially the one between an employee and boss. An effective boss breeds confidence, inspires production, and helps the work environment run like a well-oiled machine. An ineffective one can create an atmosphere of confusion, fear, and anger.

According to Gallup research, only one in ten people possess the talent to manage. That means, obviously, there are a lot of bosses out there lacking natural ability. Many work hard to learn necessary skills and live up to the expectations of their position. Many do not.

Whether dealing with a poor communicator, a terrible organizer, or a temperamental oaf, coming to work each day is hard when you have a problematic boss. The quick solution that comes to mind is finding a new job. (Hence the popularity of the saying “People leave managers, not companies.”) But not all workers want (or are in a position) to make such a move. They may enjoy the actual work. The job may pay well or contribute to their long-term goals. Similar roles could be difficult to find due to location or industry. And, there’s no guarantee that someone accepting a new job offer will end up with a better boss.

Consider learning how to deal with a difficult boss as a good skill to acquire. Here are tactics to add to your arsenal:

Identify the problem(s)

What makes this person a “bad boss”? Perhaps he is a micromanager who scrutinizes your every move. Maybe she possesses a “my way or the highway” management style. Perhaps he sets unrealistic expectations that leave you constantly struggling to meet deadlines. Write down the things that bother you. Besides the fact that it feels good to vent, you may discover patterns. This knowledge can prove helpful when determining further action.

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The list also serves as a starting point for documentation should you choose to take up matters with human resources. While employees often can handle a difficult situation on their own, extreme behavior such as bullying or harassment demands more attention.

“The extent to which a boss is difficult is somewhat subjective,” says Dr. Diane Rosen, a workplace expert and a principal at Compass Consultants. “‘Difficult’ can run the gamut from annoying to full on abusive. The former is something to deal with internally while the latter may rise to the level of needing to be escalated to the boss’s boss or HR. If you have an abusive boss, take whatever action is necessary to bring the abusive attention to a superior. If it is a small business and/or the boss is an owner and there are no channels, you may have to leave the job as soon as is practicable in your situation. Your safety comes first.”

Examine your own behavior

When you are in a frustrating working relationship, it is easy to blame the other person. Take a hard look, though, at how you might be contributing to the problem. (Note: If the scenario involves sexual advances, violence, or other improper actions on the part of your boss, do not “victim blame” yourself. Wrong is just plain wrong.)

Let’s say you’re bothered by micromanaging. Might the fact that you missed two important deadlines last month and recently sent out a customer email blast containing a glaring error justify the boss paying extra attention? Or, perhaps you lament that your manager is a stickler. But is it really out of line to reprimand workers for not following safety procedures, failing to obey dress code, or taking a long lunch? A boss who expects you to follow rules and perform up to par is not being difficult – he is doing his job.

Remember that managers need to live up to company expectations. What you do reflects on them. Adjusting your own attitude or performance might make everyone’s work life better.

Might you also be quick to overreact? Is the boss really that bad or just sort of annoying? Do you have expectations set in your mind that are nearly impossible to meet? Is one past bad instance clouding your perception of all his or her actions? It could be time to forgive and forget or to remind yourself that nobody’s perfect and move forward.

Avoid landmines

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Once you better understand the challenges of your situation, you can begin instituting changes. For instance, what triggers meltdowns? If your boss is always in a bad mood after returning from an executive meeting, try to schedule your daily check-in before that event. If he tends to micromanage during the hour before a report is due, move the deadline up 60 minutes in your head. You can hand him a completed document rather than subject yourself to his hyper behavior.

Similarly, know your leader’s pet peeves. Does she go ballistic when spotting a typo? Triple-check your work. Is he ready to write up people for being a minute late? Get there early. Anticipating difficulties and staying one step ahead can prevent many negative encounters from ever happening.

Speak the right language

Want your boss to listen to your ideas or suggestions? Talk about issues as they relate to work. Difficult managers typically do not want insight into their personality, nor do they particularly want to hear about your feelings. Stick to your mutual goal of benefiting the company.

“Finding common ground with your boss can foster a more positive working relationship. Identifying shared goals and interests can help bridge the gap and ease tensions,” says Ben Gold, founder of Recommended Home Buyers.

Perhaps you are frustrated by the boss routinely dumping work on you last minute. You may be tempted to point out that he is inconsiderate or causes you a great deal of anxiety. Instead, present the matter in terms of your common ground – good work. Say how you would really benefit from getting assignments earlier. The extra time would allow them the attention they deserve. Another possibility would be to enlist his help the next time this situation occurs. Show him what’s already on your to-do list, and ask him what to prioritize given the time constraints.

“Focus on solutions rather than dwelling on the difficulties,” Gold suggests. “Presenting actionable ideas to address challenges can demonstrate your proactive approach and dedication to a harmonious work environment.”

Pay attention to communication styles, too. If your boss likes emails, asking questions via that method may yield quick and helpful answers. Unsure what your manager prefers? Ask about her favored communication method in the name of saving her time moving forward.

Up your game

Unfortunately, dealing with a bad boss may necessitate going to greater lengths to compensate for their lack of clarity or poor communication skills. Yes, this extra effort seems unfair, but it also could ultimately make your work life run smoother. And if you are interested in sticking around this company – perhaps to get a promotion or a spot on another team – such actions protect your reputation.

“Get granular,” Rosen says. “For example, if the boss does not give clear assignments, make sure to take notes and check that you are sure you understand the instructions both at the time and as you are working. You want to avoid spending time and effort on something only to find out that it is not what the boss wanted. If the boss says that’s not what I said, you can refer to your notes and your email chain confirming that you did as told. Or, if the boss claims you did not meet a deadline when in fact you did, make sure to timestamp your work by sending an email such as ‘confirming you received the report I sent this morning/yesterday/last Tuesday.’ To the extent it is practical, document your workflow and responses to the boss’s requests.”

Stay professional

Workers trying to “get back” at a difficult boss makes a good movie plot. In real life, it’s much safer to take the high road.

Resist the urge to talk about your boss behind her back. What you say could very well get back to the person and make the situation worse. And gossip, complaints, and negativity could make others at the company see you as the one promoting a toxic work environment. Rant to your mother, your neighbor, or your pet – not those with whom you maintain professional relationships. (This includes your LinkedIn connections and others in your network. You never know who will forward something to someone. Not to mention, you risk appearing immature.)

Also, do not try to “hurt” your manager through poor work. Such behavior will just anger the leader and cause further tensions. In the process, you make yourself look bad. You risk damaging your own reputation and career possibilities. As much as possible, separate the work from the person in charge.

Look for bright spots

Our minds tend to go to extremes. But the reality is that people are usually not all bad (or all good, for that matter). What are some of your manager’s strong points? Looking for these positives may change the vibe around your interactions.

“Move away from a binary characterization – good/bad, difficult/easy, love the boss/hate the boss,” Rosen says. “Focusing on what is bad is demoralizing and saps your energy. Is there anything about the boss that is ok? Some examples: the boss is cold and reserved but really knows the business; the boss has positive moments; the boss is fair about advancement, compensation, etc. If you can think about what is going well versus what is wrong with the boss/job, you can build tolerance for the behavior you don’t like and have a better experience at work.”

Empathize

Another way to potentially reduce negativity is to develop empathy. Emotionally intelligent workers try to see the workplace through their boss’s eyes. Might your manager be overworked and understaffed? Is the person new to management and lacking skills or confidence? Or, maybe the leader is going through some personal difficulties. (Managers parent mouthy teenagers, too.) Assume the difficult boss is not trying to hurt you personally, and give the benefit of the doubt when you can.

Pay attention to your mental health

Employees dealing with a difficult boss may experience increased stress levels, burnout, depression, or anxiety. Take measures to combat these things. Exercise. Sleep. Eat right. Meditate. Go for a mind-clearing walk at lunch. Spend your evenings doing things you enjoy rather than rehashing the day’s events in your head. Take days off to refresh and recharge.

Also, avoid associating your own worth with what a toxic boss says or does. No matter how outstanding your performance, that pat on the back may never come. Find other cheerleaders and mentors. Give yourself credit for a job well done.

Move on

Finally, know when to say when. If you’ve tried to improve matters with a bad boss but still find the situation unbearable, explore a new job opportunity. You might transfer to a new job within the organization or decide to seek a fresh start with a new company.

“While it is crucial to make efforts in resolving challenges with your difficult boss, it is equally important to recognize when the situation remains stagnant despite your best attempts,” says Vikas Kaushik, CEO at TechAhead. “If the circumstances continue to negatively impact your well-being and hinder your professional growth, it might be time to contemplate seeking other career opportunities. Making the decision to move on from a challenging workplace is not a sign of weakness but rather a proactive step towards ensuring your long-term happiness and success in your career journey.”