Dealing with a difficult boss

Having worked at developing leaders for more than 20 years I can certainly empathise if you are struggling with your boss. I’ve had the misfortune to have some obnoxious, odious, narcissistic managers in my corporate career. When I lead programmes for organisations, out of each group of twelve there are typically four or five who make a real big effort to become the very best they can — these are the aspirational leaders. Another group of four make some adjustments with a variable impact, these are the grafter leaders. There are usually a couple with a very fixed mindset about their capabilities, who will go through the motions (the politicians!) and try one or two things whilst a further two should just never be responsible for the performance and wellbeing of others (the incompetent and toxic)!

Now even in 2017 the same problems occur from the same core issues as when I began working in this field

  • People are put in senior positions because of their individual expertise and contribution.
  • Many believe they have some special gifts beyond the capabilities of others, although they are unlikely to voice this.
  • Some have the qualities of empathy and understanding, an appreciation that their job entails drawing the best from others, the self-awareness to be critical of themselves and have a willingness to learn and adapt. These are likely to be a genuine success.
  • Most organisations do very little to equip their people with the appropriate capabilities to lead and draw the most from themselves and others. They settle for hard working and moderately achieving managers and mildly engaged people.

What can you do if you don’t get on with your boss? How do you answer the “Is it me, or is it him/her?” question. The likely answer is it’s both of you, the problem you have is that you might be the only one bothered by this and therefore need to try and find a way to manage it. The problem I am afraid is yours. Once you acknowledge that, you have made a start. Until you realise the problem is yours, you tend to take little responsibility for managing it — you leave the problem as your boss — and blame them for not resolving it.

Here are some options. All of these are oversimplified for the purposes of this piece, however I’ll try and clarify your options

  1. Use empathy. The neuroscience backs up what we already knew — when we empathise with somebody we use different parts of the brain which allow us to take a different perspective. If you saw the world through your boss’s eyes how would they answer these questions?
    1. What pressures are they under- from their boss, their position, the organisational expectations of them — and the demands and expectations they make of themselves? Try to get an understanding of their personality and how that affects them. That might at least explain what is behind their actions. We often take it personally, yet it may well be more about them than about you. By the way, it’s still your problem! If at least you can understand their intentions, that will begin to help!
    2. How do they perceive you? What do they like about dealing with you? What do you do that annoys them? What do they most want/need from you?
  2. Look inwards. Does he/she remind you of somebody you’ve dealt with before? Is that part of the issue? What specifically is it that he/she does that irritates you and/or tramples on your values? Are they aware of that? Really? Are you clear on what you would like them to do instead? Is what you prefer reasonable? Are your expectations realistic for the majority of managers to fulfil? Given your current managers’ level of experience, pressures and personality, what can you realistically expect? Be realistic — but not soft. You should have expectations of them. Do you need to modify these though?
  1. Modify and get feedback. Or get feedback and modify. The order depends on your relationship, the level of honesty and openness etc. between you and your boss. You may try and modify your behaviour to more meet their needs in the first instance — and then tell them what you’ve been doing and check whether that is what they want. An example would be saying to them “I’ve been concentrating on copying you in on my correspondence with xyz as I get the sense you dislike being out of the loop — is, that, right?

You may be able to get feedback first then modify “If I were to do two things to work more effectively with you what would they be?” Without some of this dialogue it will be hard for each of you as you second guess what is required by each of you.

  1. Ask for what you want. I know this sounds like a real stretch for some people — but without this your chances of getting a resolution you can live with are much lower. A high number of managers seldom consider what they are providing others may not be what they want. They know they intend to be ‘effective’ or whatever and assume that comes across. They are not mind readers so they need you to tell them. “I’d really appreciate it if when you have a difference of opinion with me, you’d deal with that directly with me and not copy other people in. When you do that, I feel like you are undermining me and I believe that harms our relationship”.
  2. Choose your attitude and way. Victor Frankel wrote in his superb book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, based on his experiences in concentration camps, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Know that however difficult things maybe, this time will pass. Whilst you endure it, choose your attitude and stop a difficult relationship from causing you misery in all aspects of your life.
  1. Look elsewhere. That old adage “If somethings not working, do something different” is true here. Although its energy sapping and sometimes demoralising, keep looking for other opportunities to move to, especially if the person you are reporting to is unlikely to do so. That may mean some conversations internally to see if you can arrange a change. Speak with a more senior figure in your organisation about your aspirations and desire for a new or different challenge to see if there is scope for movement. It almost certainly means also looking outside and somewhere else.

Overall the message is take responsibility for trying to manage your part of the relationship as best you can, keep some perspective and remember most things pass. If things are not going to change, remember you are making choices every day — choose you attitude and also your destination.

Leave a comment