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How to Deal with a Difficult Boss (7 Top Strategies)

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You’re tired, unhappy, and demotivated. You've got dark circles under your eyes, and every interaction with your boss leaves you feeling a combination of rage and frustration that keeps you from getting a good night's sleep.

Not everyone is fortunate to have a good boss. The reality is many people get promoted without the right experience or training in handling a team. It’s sad and ironic, considering the effect a difficult boss could have on an employee’s mental well-being, productivity, career growth, and of course, the company’s bottom line. 

Dealing with a difficult boss
You can learn strategies for how to deal with a difficult boss. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

All that said, you can’t just complain about your boss to HR or quit your job solely because you can’t get along. Consider the work you do, the people in your team, your salary and the company you work for before you decide to switch jobs because of a bad boss.

Ever feel like your paycheck isn't worth putting up with your bad boss? A lot of people feel that way. Don't quit yet. Try these strategies first.

5 Common Signs of a Bad Boss

Your boss may not be like the ones portrayed on The Devil Wears Prada or Horrible Bosses, but they could be impossible to work with just the same. There’s no consensus on what makes a bad boss because there are so many ways to screw it up.

Below are the common personality profiles of a bad boss:

1. The Narcissist                                              

Narcissistic bosses only care about themselves, specifically how they look to upper management and other employees. They’re only interested in hearing good things about their performance, so don’t expect they’d be open to your feedback. In most cases, they won’t even consider that they could be the source of the problem. They also like taking credit for their subordinate’s work, but are also quick to throw people under the bus when things go wrong.

2. The One With Favorites

Don’t you just hate it when your boss promotes someone they like, instead of choosing based on skill and experience? It’s difficult and demotivating to work for a boss who won’t recognize your value unless you’re willing to brownnose them.

Their favoritism extends beyond job promotions too. Bosses who play favorites tend to give better performance reviews, projects, and schedules to people they like.

3. The Micro-Manager

Whether out of job insecurity or control issues, micro-managers like to dictate exactly how their employees complete tasks, down to the smallest detail.          

4. The Ghost or Under-Manager

Ghosts pretend they care about an employee’s development, but they don’t care enough to provide the time and support needed for that growth. They rarely communicate, leaving employees in the dark about their expectations and project timelines. It’s also because of this that their employees have no idea if what they’re doing is right or wrong, so even the ones that care about their job eventually lose interest.

It’s hard to feel a sense of ‘job well done’ when there are no expectations set upon you to meet in the first place.

5. The Slave Driver

Bosses like this know their employees are already overworked, yet they keep on piling more jobs to do. They just don’t care. Some of these bosses are hard taskmasters because someone from higher up is also pressuring them. Others are simply workaholic and expect others around them to keep up with the pace they dictate. This tutorial has some good suggestions to help with that:

Is Your Boss Truly That Bad? Could It Be a Misunderstanding?

Now before you try the strategies below, you first need to confirm that you’re actually dealing with a difficult boss.

Observe your manager’s behavior for a few days. Compare how many times they’re doing things badly and the number of times they’re doing a good job. This good-bad ratio will give you a non-subjective way to determine if your boss is difficult to work with or if it’s all just in your head.

Try to see things from their point of view when they mess up. Could external forces outside of their control cause the failure or negative behavior? Consider their motivators, fears, and anything else that might influence their behavior. Pressures from upper management, customers, and investors may affect their behavior, too.

Is it possible that they’re just having a rough day? Perhaps you’re just too nitpicky and  you’re criticizing them over petty stuff. Be honest with your observations here.

The above exercise doesn’t guarantee that you’ll change the way you see your boss. But at least it can help you empathize, which can lead to a better understanding between the two of you.

7 Strategies for Dealing With a Difficult Boss

Let’s say you performed the exercise above and discovered that your boss is as mean or incompetent as you once thought.

It’s not time to resign or ask HR to intervene. Even if your employer’s human resources rulebook states that HR has the power to mediate boss-employee relationships, you shouldn’t rely on this power. The people from HR may choose to do nothing because of your manager’s influence or any number of reasons.

Use the following countermeasures when dealing with a difficult boss:

1. Assume Your Boss Is Unaware of Their Flaw(s)

Begin with the mindset that your boss may not know that they’re being difficult. You may have gathered evidence of your manager’s negative behavior, but there’s a huge possibility that you’re both looking at it from different points of view.

For instance, your slave driver boss may not understand that not everyone is as driven or as committed to work as they are. To them, a strong work ethic may mean staying in the office until the job is done. Your definition is just different. A hands-off boss may not consider their lack of feedback as under-management, but a way to empower their team to make their own decisions.

Right now, all you've got is a misunderstanding that you can both resolve through communication.

2. Study Sources of Conflict Between You

Don’t just come up to them and enumerate what they’re doing wrong. If you do it that way, it'll look like you’re criticizing them. Worse, giving negative feedback at a time when your boss is busy putting out a fire will make tensions worse. Pick the right place and time, preferably when your boss isn’t busy.

Analyze the common sources of conflict between the two of you, then list at least two potential solutions for each problem. The key here is that you’re focusing on what can be done to solve the problem, not just on your manager’s flaws.

3. Set Up Time to Meet & Discuss Problems & Solutions

When you finally have a good opportunity to talk, start by saying you’ve identified several “opportunities for improvement” in the way you two work together. Try not to use the words “conflict” or “mismanagement.” Then briefly describe the points of conflict you’ve analyzed earlier. 

Don’t expect that your boss will agree to every conflict you brought up. They might get defensive, so listen and try to see things from their point of view. If things heat up, gently shift the conversation towards finding a solution you can both work on to avoid the same problem in the future.

If asking your boss directly for a meeting makes you anxious, email them to request the meetup instead. This tutorial can help you write that email:

4. Work Around Their Weakness

Some of your manager’s bad habits or behaviors may be easily fixed with a slight adjustment on your part.

Examples of methods you can use to manage a difficult boss by understanding their weakness:

Method 1. Stay One Step Ahead

Micro-managers, for example, may be more bearable to work with if you send them a list of your tasks for the day, along with how you plan to accomplish each of them. The level of detail you include should match the micro-management ‘urges’ of your boss. If you do that enough times, your manager may eventually realize that you know your responsibilities and how to do them well.

Method 2. Identify Triggers of Difficult Behavior

Your manager’s bad behavior doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It must have a trigger; you just don’t know it yet. Next time your manager gets riled up, think about what happened just a few minutes or seconds before. See if a pattern or common trigger emerges after a few days of observation.

Once you know what their trigger is, you’ll know when to avoid contact with them. Of course, it goes without saying that you should also avoid doing whatever it is that annoys them.

Method 3. Stop Assuming They Know It All

Not all managers are promoted or hired because of their impressive knowledge of the business. Sometimes, they’re hired because of similar experience or their people skills. That doesn’t make them bad managers. It just means they don’t have enough working experience in your specific department. If that’s the case, just find someone else who can help you.

Always ask your boss first though. You don’t want them to feel like you’re going over their head.

5. Get Help from Co-Workers Who Feel the Same

A sure sign that your boss is difficult to work with is that your co-workers also share your sentiment about their management and people skills. If that’s the case, you can talk to your co-workers about it.

Don’t do it to gripe or bad mouth your boss though, as that can be used against you. Instead, see if your teammates are agreeable to having a meeting with your boss to air your grievances and proposed solutions, as outlined in strategy three. 

6. Document Any Abuse

Sometimes, knowing how to deal with a rude boss isn’t enough, especially if they’re abusive. Your manager’s bad behavior may classify as harassment if they shout at you, call you names, or make your work life unnecessarily more difficult.  Document instances of abuse so you can show this to HR when you call it quits after you’ve tried everything you could, but nothing worked.

Having a paper trail or at least a log of your boss’s abuse may not ensure that you’ll win any HR battles, but it'll make it easier for your employer’s management to back you up.

7. Minimize Contact While Trying to Find Better Work

This step is only applicable if all the strategies above didn’t work and you’re just biding your time until you land a better job.

Distance yourself from your boss by using only email to communicate with them whenever possible. Don’t draw attention to yourself in meetings and only talk to them when needed. Doing this doesn’t mean you can try to even the score by taking longer lunch breaks or going on sick leave more often. That will only make things worse, so resist the urge to make your manager’s life difficult.

Instead, channel all the frustration and negative emotions you feel towards your boss into finding a new job. Use your extra time at home to revise your resume or give it a new template to spice it up, and find new job leads. Use extra time you've got at lunch to go on informational interviews.

When to Look for a New Job

If you've tried everything to get along with your boss and you just can't work things out, it may be time to move on. There's nothing wrong with that. This tutorial can help you exit your job as gracefully as possible, under the circumstances:

If you've decided to look for a new job, you'll want to update your resume. Our Envato Tuts+ series, How to Create a Great Resume (Ultimate Guide), can help you create the best resume possible.

A good way to get an eye-catching, professional resume is to use a resume template. You can find some top-notch, easily updated resume templates on Envato Elements or on GraphicRiver

Above all, you'll want to make sure that your new job is better than your current job.

How to Avoid Bad Bosses in the Future

Now that you’ve experienced what it’s like to work with a bad boss, I’m sure you’re keen to avoid them in the future.

Next time you’re interviewing at a new company, ask potential teammates and HR what your future boss is like. While you can’t explicitly ask about the person’s negative behaviors, you can ask about their communication and management style to see how compatible you’d be. Part of learning how to get along with a difficult boss is learning to avoid them in the first place.

What you decide to do about your bad boss is up to you. You've got the information you need to help you in dealing with a difficult boss. You also have some resources to help you start a new job search, if that's what you decide to do.

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