“I’ve got a difficult boss” is something I hear quite regularly and I follow up by asking the person to tell me more. We are different and your difficult boss could be perfect for someone else.
Let’s look at some different situations:
1. Does your boss have a point? Is there some grounds to the criticism? Are you working effectively and meeting your work objectives or are you beginning to coast? Have you started making personal calls in work time and done too much personal browsing online? Try and be objective on your behaviour and check that your performance is seen as effective. Ask people you know for some candid feedback.
2. There’s conflict. Conflict can often arise because we have different personalities. You may have a very extrovert boss who expects you to be ready to talk without giving you any time to think. Or you may have a boss that always emails when you want to talk it through. When we are new to a job, or at our annual review meeting can be a good time to talk about how you like to be managed and how your boss can bring out the best in you.
3. The difficult boss who closely manages you. It can be frustrating; you want to be managed on your outcomes but they want to tell you in great detail how to do the job. You can see a better way, or just want the freedom to get on with it without interference. You can pre-empt this by asking them how they would like the job completed and then share your approach. You may find they are happy with what you suggest as long as you provide regular updates on your progress. Try to anticipate any possible concerns and address them.
4. The difficult boss who sets high standards. This boss appears to be never satisfied in anything you do; this boss can always find ways to criticise you. An effective way to deal with a boss like this is to find out their standards, and understand their measures of success. With Oliver it was the typos that became far more important than the content of his reports (which was great). He improved his relationship through getting a colleague, or his wife to review everything before he clicked send. The more you understand their likes and dislikes, the easier it will be to meet their standards in the future.
5. The difficult boss who won’t make a decision. Some people procrastinate, but that doesn’t help you when you need a decision before you can move ahead. They may be the sort of person who likes to consult widely as they are worried about making the wrong decision. You could gather input form others and present him with a summary. You can also make sure you seek approval well in advance rather than rushing to get it at the last minute.
6. The difficult boss who keeps giving you extra things to do. You know you work hard and struggle as it is to deal with the volume of your work, then your difficult boss asks you to take on something new. Something I learnt to do, and encourage others to do, is to ask which task should be dropped to enable you to have the time to do this. Being assertive means you won’t get put on.
7. The difficult boss who piles on extra work (at the last minute) – You are almost done for the day and then s/he asks you to take on a piece of work, and you know this will take an hour or more. Occasionally there will be a last minute emergency but just because he or she is unorganised it doesn’t mean you need to say yes. A good way to deal with this is to ask your boss about 60-90 minutes before your end of work time if there is anything else you need to work on before the end of the day. Then if you are asked something much closer to your going home time you can say that you will work on it first thing, but today you need to leave because of … (evening class, tickets to the cinema, meeting a family member etc.)
8. The difficult boss who is verbally abusive. Some people will put you down in public, in front of colleague or customers. Avoid any emotional reaction. It can be better to say something like – “yes, you are right. I’m sorry” and plan what to do later. If you get angry back, or cry, you are giving them reason to behave like this again.
9. Is it just you or does your boss pick on everyone? If he has it in for the whole team it might be worth raising this with your bosses’ manager or HR. If you are in a trade union, it would be worth talking with them. HR may have plans for you and a promotion may be in the offing, so don’t bottle it all up and then leave.
What can help
Understand your boss – imagine you are your boss, what are their objectives and challenges. What would they love to achieve, what are their measures of success? What does their bonus depend on? The more you can help your boss, the easier (should be) your working relationship). Understand their strengths and challenges and do what you can to support them. If they are disorganised, help keep them focused on deadlines etc.
Make talking with your boss your first action – if you go to your bosses boss you may be seen in an even worse light and find that your boss manages you out of the organisation and your colleagues see you as a snitch. In this meeting, be clear on what you want, and recognise that you might get upset.
When you have this meeting, tell your boss the things you like about him or her before you tell them everything you want to change. Tell them about how certain behaviour makes you feel. By saying I don’t find a particular behaviour motivating, or “when you say xxx it makes me feel that my work isn’t valued”. No one can challenge you when you say this is how you make me feel.
Get evidence – make sure to document everything you are asked to do, so you have a paper trail to support anything that might come back. If your boss gives you tasks verbally, confirm everything by email with dates for completion so you have evidence if needed.