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Dealing with a Difficult Boss

by Rob Cross on March 24th, 2010

The Difficult Boss

So your career has started, and things seemed to be going well…that is, until you realise you’re working for a difficult boss!

Having to work for a difficult boss is one of those things that you sometimes hear about before you start work, but which you hope you’ll never have to experience. Unfortunately however, at some time in your career it is inevitable that you’ll have to work for someone that you just don’t seem to get along with.

What is a Difficult Boss?

A difficult boss is someone who you just don’t seem to be able to get along with. There’s something (or many things) about them which get on your nerves and which you feel prevents you from achieving your full potential. Examples of things that ‘difficult bosses’ do may include:

  • Micro-managing every little task you have to do
  • Not seeking out or listening to your ideas
  • Appearing to be purely self motivated (i.e. putting themselves above others and the organisation)
  • Taking credit for your achievements
  • Not supporting you when challenged by others

Regardless of what your difficult boss does, generally the impact on you is one of feeling deflated, demotivated and ultimately in despair – you end up just not wanting to go to work!

Therefore, because of the impact a difficult boss can have, it is essential you know how to respond – you must learn how to deal with a difficult boss!

How to deal with a Difficult Boss

In seeking to deal with a difficult boss it is essential to first consider why they are being difficult. Whilst there are usually quite a few reasons, when you get to the heart of thier behaviour it’s usually based one simple concept – it is because they are operating from a place of insecurity and fear – they are worried about something.

That is, it’s more than likely that your boss is behaving as they are because they’re worried about failing – they are worried that they will be seen badly in the organisation. When you realise this, you can start to understand that the behaviour of a difficult boss is less about you, and more about what they are really worried about – i.e. failing as a manager and as a professional!

With this in mind, there are a few key things you can do to deal with a difficult boss:

Step 1: Define exactly what makes them Difficult

If you think you have a difficult boss it is essential to first describe what behaviours you believe they display that make them difficult. Then, you must describe what impact these behaviours have on you. Doing this will help you more dlearly understand what exactly they’re doing, and help you avoid just generalising that everything they are doing is ‘difficult’. It will also help you to understand what might be driving this behaviour and how to respond.

Step 2: Seek to understand what’s driving thier Behaviour

Often we just assume that people’s behaviour is a reflection of what thier true motive is. For example; when someone screams at us, we assume it is because they are angry rather than because they are scared or worried for our safety. So, as we know from our own behaviour, what people say and do, does not always fully reflect what they mean or need. Using this principle, it’s essential that when dealing with a difficult boss we seek to understand what is driving their behaviour. And, a good place to start with this is to look beyond what they are saying and doing and focus on what they are really worried about. For example; a boss could be micro-managing because they are really worried about the project failing which will result in them looking bad and potentially being fired. So rather than seeking to just see the behaviour, we must seek to understand what’s driving that behaviour including understanding all the pressure they are under and what’s keeping them awake at night.

Step 3: Determine how to make them Feel Safe

Like anyone who is feeling scared or worried, the behaviour you see from a difficult boss is their attempt to help them feel safe. Knowing this, you can also begin to work out how to do the same – you to can help them feel safe! Based on your understanding of what might be driving thier behaviour, now consider what you can do to help them feel safe. Examples of how to make them feel same may include:

  • Being very proactive (i.e. daily) in keeping them updated on what they need to know
  • Being very proactive in getting thier support on key decisions
  • Being very proactive in identifying and removing anything that may be causing them unnecessary stress (including what you may be doing to cause them stress)
  • Being very proactive in identifying and implementing improvement ideas

As you can see from this list, the key to making any difficult boss feel safe is to be proactive. This means using your initiative to get on the front foot in your relationship with them – your boss should never be left wondering what you’re doing, and they should always see you as an eliminator of stress rather than a cause of it!

Step 4: Take Action

In seeking to take action, identify some very simple things you can start doing to be proactive with your boss. For example; giving them a very brief daily update of what you’ve achieved and what you plan to do next, and/or, dealing with simple tasks that are causing stress which can be eliminated easily. In taking action, be sure to constantly let your boss know what you’re up to, because as they see you being proactive they will begin to relax more and feel safe. And, as time progresses and thier trust builds they will begin to appreciate you more.

A last thought…

Whislt the 4 steps above is a great way to dealing with a difficult boss, it is rare that you will see a change overnight. Like with any relationship, building trust and helping them to feel safe takes time. You therefore have to be patient and persistent in your approach.

In following the 4 steps above it’s also critical that you avoid apologising for anything you’ve done, unless it is a monumental mistake. Apologising to a difficult boss only ever reinforces thier fear and insecurity, which they project onto you – so avoid apologising! Instead, seek to recognise that something needs to be done about the situation they’re complaining about, and then take it upon yourself to fix what ever needs fixing. This will keep the focus on action rather than emotion!

So…if you have a difficult boss, don’t just react to the behaviour you see. Instead, seek to understand the motive behind that behavior and then explore how you can take action to make your boss feel safe!

For more tips like this, CLICK HERE to get your copy of Grad Expectations: the essential guide for all graduates entering the work force

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