How to handle a difficult boss

Wendy Grace offers advice on dealing with a difficult manager to improve the atmosphere in your work space

You will most likely at more than one point in your career have to deal with a difficult boss. These types of managers can make your work more complicated, sap your energy and interfere with your productivity. Dealing with this type of situation is inevitable and how these types of people affect you depends on the skills that you can develop in order to be able to interact with them.

A recent Danish study showed that most people don’t leave their jobs because they are overworked – they leave their managers!

Having a difficult boss can really take away from what otherwise might be a rewarding and enjoyable job. When you are treated unfairly or you don’t feel valued this can lead to you planning how to get out of the role rather than how to progress.

Maybe you have had a boss who is a bully or a boss who micromanages or never praises good work. Bad bosses will be found in all organisations. Although we make light of horrible bosses in comedies on TV or in the cinema, if you have ever had one it is no laughing matter.

Having a bad boss can be a good learning curve. Rather than your boss being a good mentor you learn what not to do. It also can encourage you to develop yourself further in your own career.

Before you let your boss be the factor that is making you want to plan your exit strategy, think first of solutions to managing the situation. Whatever your boss’s failings or shortcomings, there are always better ways to mange him or her.

Unfortunately when we don’t trust or respect our boss this can affect our own motivation. However, blaming your boss for everything and calling them a monster may be therapeutic, but it will not improve your situation.

The only thing that will help is clear-headed strategy to deal with the situation.

Be honest with yourself

Firstly you need to honestly analyse your own work. Is the difficulty you face in work truly caused by a bad boss or is the flak that your boss is giving you justified? Could you yourself be contributing to the stress? Ask yourself is your work at an appropriate standard, are you meeting all the expectations you should be? It is hard to be objective about your own performance. It might be useful to ask some objective colleagues that you trust for their opinion on your work.

Don’t let your own work suffer

All too often when someone has a bad boss their work suffers, they take longer lunches or more sick days. Settling the score by letting your own work suffer will ultimately only negatively impact on you.

You want to stay on good terms with other superiors and colleagues in the company. Protect yourself by looking after yourself when a difficult boss is making your work life stressful. Leave the office at the door when you go home, take regular exercise and eat well. When times are tough, looking after yourself is non-negotiable.

Keep a record

Be sure to document everything, every interaction you have with your boss and every request that they make of you. If you have to take the matter to HR this will be vitally important. I would always recommend following up all work requests with an e-mail so that you have a written record of whatever it may be.

Keep a paper trail of all the work you produce. If your boss makes verbal requests of you be sure to follow it up with e-mail confirmation of the request. This ensures if your outputs are questioned you have documented proof.

Understand behaviour

One of the keys to challenging difficult behaviour is understanding what causes it in the first place.

It is only then that you can discover what are the underlying causes driving the behaviour as opposed to what is appearing on the surface. The more you understand your boss the better positioned you are to manage the situation. Try to put yourself in their shoes and look at the work place from their perspective. Not only will this help you to be more patient and forgiving of your boss’ behaviour but it will also make it easier to take the high road. Rather than sinking to their level be the type of colleague you wish your boss was. Your positive behaviour will have an impact.

Also understanding your boss’ preferences and pet peeves means you can communicate better. For example if your boss is fast paced and quick to make decisions and prefers to do things in person than via e-mail, then approach them in this way.

We all have different personality types and we must handle people according to their personality type. Working according to your boss’ preferences is an easy way of managing your boss without them ever knowing it. It is a key leadership skill to develop regardless of the type of boss you are working for.

It is also important that you manage your own negative emotions or reactions to your boss’ behaviour so you don’t end up engaging in self-defeating behaviour such as stonewalling or counter-attacking your boss. This will help you communicate your concerns in a positive manner.

Avoid confrontation

Try not to react to verbal abuse or overly harsh criticism with emotion. This generally will lead to more trouble. When a personal attack is made on you or your work this is a way to try and bait you emotionally. If you react the first time, then you become a target for additional attacks. If you do not react, you strip the difficult boss of their power without heightening the conflict.

It is always better to discuss rather than confront the situation. Confrontation simply breeds further confrontation. Use their criticism as a topic for discussion on goals and problem-solving and ask for advice. Schedule another time after the conflict to have a chat. When this happens make sure to take out emotion from the discussion, don’t get personal. The goal of the meeting is figuring out ways that you can work together more productively.

Make sure you have a clear action plan of the points you want to make. In this situation it is also good to include some praise of your superior – straight up criticisms will more than likely exacerbate the situation.

During the meeting it is good at some point to ask for your boss’ advice and opinion on your work, make it clear that you are excited about your job and you want to be able to work more productively. This means you can leave the meeting with some tangible items to work on and you can schedule another meeting for a month’s time to review.

If your boss can clearly see that working with you has a meaningful benefit to them, then they are more likely to be amenable.

Speak up

It goes without saying that if your boss is guilty of gross misconduct then you should immediately report them to HR. If your boss’ behaviour doesn’t change then getting advice on your options is wise.

If taking these measures does not work then the next step is to go to HR. It is important to have the courage to speak up rather than leaving the work environment altogether. Unfortunately oftentimes employees leave rather than trying to have a difficult conversation with human resources. You owe it both to yourself and to your boss to try and work through the situation.

More tips:

  • Remember to be objective about your own performance.
  • Leave the office at the door when you go home, take regular exercise and eat well.
  • Document everything and keep a paper trail of all the work you produce.
  • Be the type of colleague you wish your boss was.
  • Try working according to your boss' preferences.
  • Discussion is always better than confrontation.