Seven Tips for Dealing with a Difficult Boss

Seven Tips for Getting Along With a Difficult Boss

It's hard to find someone today who doesn't have a bad boss story. Just mention in passing that you’re having an issue with yours and you’re bound to get, “Well I had this boss who…” followed by a chain reaction of anecdotes designed to one-up the one before.

The number one reason employees leave a company is a bad manager. People don’t leave companies; they leave managers. But unless you ARE the boss, chances are it will happen. But there are ways to handle issues with a boss and there are things you can do to hopefully make the situation better.

Here’s the secret: you can learn to “manage up”. Yes, you read that right. Stop thinking of them as your boss. If you want to get ahead you have to work with them, one way or another. The strategies that follow will give you some ideas of how you can take responsibility for your own success no matter what kind of personalities you encounter.

  1. Know their “why”: Identify their motivation
    The better you understand what your boss does and why the better positioned you are to deliver results and management expectations. Ask yourself questions like:
    1. What do they care about?
    2. What keeps them up at night?
    3. What would they love more of and what would they love less of on a daily basis?
    4. What frightens them?
    5. How much importance do they place on impressing others?
  2. Support their success; work around their weaknesses
    While it may be so very tempting to try and make your boss look bad, as the saying goes, “It rolls downhill.” There is nothing to be gained by going to war with your boss or setting them up for failure. If you can learn your manager’s strengths and help them build on them and then proactively work around their weaknesses, you can diffuse many aggravating situations. If your manager is disorganized, give them tips and tricks instead of whining about their lack of attention to detail. You may not see the reward yourself right away, but it will come back to you eventually.
  3. Take the high road: Your reputation depends on it
    Be very careful about who you complain to. Your spouse and your friends may get an earful but, in the office, you are Susie Sunshine. You never know who is in the bathroom with you, or around the corner. You will get a lot more attention by being the one who doesn’t engage than being the one who does. If your boss is a shouter, do not shout back. As Ghandi wrote, “Be the change you want to see in this world.” Act like the leader you wish you had. A rumor mill will never solve the problem and will only come back to bite you.
  4. Speak Up: Give Your Boss a Chance to Respond.
    Is it possible your boss really doesn't know? Of course, that’s hard to imagine but if they’re that bad, they could also be that clueless. So maybe don’t wait until your exit interview to voice your concerns. If you think it could help the situation and be well-received, speak up. But there are some ground rules for doing this. Speak with respect. Do not get emotional. Have concrete issues to address preferably with ideas for solutions. Make it clear you are not just talking to complain but that you genuinely want things to improve. Otherwise, you permanently eliminate any chance of improvement.
  5. Don’t Be Intimidated by a Bully: Stand Tall, Never Cower!
    Bullies get their power because people let them be bullies. If your boss manages by yelling, criticizing or judging—stand firm. If you know you are doing your job and doing your best, keep doing what you are doing. Ask questions to clarify and understand and to diffuse the situation but never cower. This may take some practice on your part but you will build the confidence you need. If you ultimately need to tell your boss to check his behavior, make sure that you are prepared to do so in a calm, prepared way and know that it will ratchet up their behavior. If you choose to take this step, you should document previous examples of similar behavior and be OK with the possibility of the worst possible outcome.
  6. Set Boundaries
    It may seem that when you have a bad boss that you cannot get away from them. But if they are not willing to set boundaries on your interactions, then you will have to set them yourself. It is possible to minimize your contact with a bad boss. Group the items you need to talk to your boss about so you don’t need to talk with them multiple times a day. Communicate by email when possible. There are a lot of options. As Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
  7. Be Proactive: Do Your Research Before Jumping Ship
    Does the phrase, “Out of the frying pan, into the fire” ring a bell? Or, “The grass isn’t always greener…”? If you decide you can’t make it work, make sure you check out your next employer’s company culture, the leadership and the management style. If you look to move within your organization, make sure you network within the other department to check out the environment over there.

A lot of us don’t have choices over who our bosses turn out to be. But we do have choices over how we deal with it. Make the choice to be responsible for making sure you stay on a successful career path no matter what—or who—seems to be standing in your way.