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Managing Your Boss Part IV: Dealing with a Difficult Boss

Secretary and her director at work

We’ve talked about the importance of managing up, offered you real strategies for common dealing-with-the-boss scenarios, and discussed why being able to manage your boss is critical to your professional development. For this final installment of our Managing Your Boss series, let’s tackle the elephant in the room that everyone wishes they could ignore: the downright difficult boss.

While most bosses truly mean well and want to work with you to achieve company objectives and your professional goals, a small (although not small enough) number are just impossible to work with.

If you’re working for a difficult boss — one who’s just too demanding, clueless about what’s really needed to do your job, or more than willing to throw you under the bus in a crisis — the ultimate solution is, of course, to want to find another job. If that’s the route you choose, we can help you with that. But if you’d rather stay put, you’ll need to find strategies for dealing with your difficult boss, and we can assist you there, too.

First, it’s important to see if you can understand why your boss is difficult. Is the company going through upheaval that’s putting added pressure on him or her? Is he or she constantly laboring under unrealistic goals imposed by higher-ups? Has she gone as high as she can in the company but still hasn’t figured out it’s time to move on? Is he wrestling with personal issues that are encroaching on the work day?

People are rarely jerks for no reason at all, although it does happen! Understanding the pressures driving your boss’ negative behavior can help you formulate problem-solving strategies. Never be confrontational when talking to a difficult boss; allowing your relationship to become adversarial won’t help anyone. Do your best to separate your ego from your business persona; try not to react emotionally or defensively to criticism or poor behavior.

Try employing these tactics when dealing with a difficult boss:

  • Pay attention to how your boss is defining success. It’s important to know his or her definition of “good work,” so that you’ll be better able to deliver it.
  • Talk to colleagues who have particularly good relationships with the boss. If appropriate, ask for their suggestions on how to be successful.
  • Never bad-mouth your boss in public or in private. Disagreement is fine as long as it’s done professionally.
  • Ask for the information you need to accomplish your job. Try using your boss’ preferred communication channel — email, a quick phone call, a visit to his office.
  • Regularly review your priorities with your boss and stay focused on them. Build credibility by addressing your boss’ problems and priorities.
  • Pay attention to your boss’ body language so you know when he or she is most likely to be receptive to discussion and when it’s best not to disturb him or her.

A final word: if your boss is chronically hostile or abusive, it’s unlikely the behavior will change. In this situation, take your concerns to human resources, but be politically savvy. If your company enables bullying by looking the other way or even rewarding bad behavior, it’s unlikely your concerns will change the corporate culture. In that situation, you’re probably better off looking for a new job.

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