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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Best Tips on How to Deal With a Difficult Boss

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In an ideal world, we wouldn't need to know, or even think about, how to deal with a difficult boss. We'd all have fantastic managers—ones who help us succeed, make us feel valued, and are just all-around great people. Unfortunately, that's not always the case.

Whether the person you work for is a micromanager, has anger management problems, shows favoritism toward one person, is a flat-out workplace bully, or just isn't very competent, you still have to make the best of the situation and get your job done.

To help out, we've gathered the best advice from around the web for dealing with a difficult boss. Try one or more of these tips to find some common ground with your superior—or at least stay sane until you find a new gig.

Speaking of a new gig, check out these amazing open jobs on The Muse »

Types of difficult bosses

To learn how to deal with a difficult boss, you need to pinpoint what makes them so hard to work with. “I first like to identify whether a boss is difficult to work with because of their personality or their work style,” says Eloïse Eonnet, Muse career coach and founder of Eloquence. According to her, difficult bosses usually fit in these two categories:

  • They have a personality that is very different from your own or clashes with yours. In this category, we have bosses who are disrespectful, lone wolves who prefer to work alone, workaholics, and the know-it-all boss.
  • They have a work style that doesn’t allow you to thrive and grow. For instance, bosses with poor leadership skills, who micromanage or demand too much, and those who pick favorites.

“Generally speaking, difficult bosses can fall into one (or sometimes, unfortunately, both) of those buckets. It’s helpful to identify which one makes it difficult to work together, because the approach to making it better will differ,” Eonnet says.

The impact of dealing with a difficult boss

Do you feel like your mental health and productivity have decreased since you started working with a difficult boss? It's not just an impression; a boss who is difficult to work with on a daily basis can really have a negative impact on its employees.

“If nothing changes, it builds a sense of overwhelm or stress over time that directly impacts our ability to do good work and feel confident in our daily lives,” Eonnet says. “Over time, working with a difficult manager every day feels like a fight, a real struggle.”

In some cases, employees may start investing more energy in tip-toeing around the boss instead of focusing on their projects and tasks. “It’s not only frustrating and hard to directly work together, but constantly thinking about it and knowing it will happen all the time, starts to weigh on us,” she says, “which adds mental stress and lowers our ability to do good work and thrive.” 

Why is it important to improve this relationship?

You likely spend at least eight hours a day at work, so it's imperative that your workplace isn't a constant source of stress and anxiety. That's why it's essential to try to improve your relationship with your boss, especially if you like the company and don't want to switch jobs. By addressing this situation, you can reap benefits such as:

  • More productivity
  • More satisfaction
  • Less work-related stress
  • Less work-related anxiety

“Most of these relationships won’t be 100% perfect, but they should be healthy and help you feel confident in your work and career,” Eonnet says. “A positive and healthy relationship is key.”

How to deal with a difficult boss: 10 tips

So, how do you deal with a difficult boss? After all, they're your superior, and it can be challenging to confront someone in authority. If you're seeking ways to address your manager or supervisor's behavior without escalating the situation, here are 10 tips that can help you:

1. Make sure you’re actually dealing with a “bad boss”

Before trying to fix your bad boss, make sure you really are dealing with one. Is there a reason for their behavior, or are you being too hard on them? “Is it their personality? Is it their work style? Identify what it is exactly that creates mental stress or the inability to do your best work within those categories,” Eonnet says.

From there, you can begin working on a strategy to address the situation in a way that will get you the improvements you seek. “These steps will give you clarity on what’s going on and what you would ideally need instead,” she says. “Identify what it is—and be honest and fair with yourself and your boss in this process.”

2. Identify your boss’ motivation

Understanding why your boss does or cares about certain things can give you insight into their management style. For example, if your boss is a micromanager, it might not be a lack of trust in your abilities, but rather pressure from their superiors for improved outcomes.

Does this make being micromanaged any less uncomfortable? Probably not. However, you can address their productivity concerns and assure your projects are under control without their constant check-ins. For example, create a shared spreadsheet or Trello board that provides real- time updates on your tasks and completed work.

3. Don’t let it affect your work

No matter how bad your boss' behavior, avoid letting it affect your work. You want to stay on good terms with other leaders in the company (and keep your job!). Instead of trying to even the score by mirroring their behavior or intentionally becoming less productive—actions that could worsen your situation and damage your reputation—focus on thriving despite your boss’s behavior.

4. Stay one step ahead

Especially when you're dealing with a micromanager, head off your boss' requests by anticipating them, and get things done before they come to you. This tactic, known as micromanaging a micromanager, consists in always being ahead to minimize the need from constant reminders.

For example, let's say you're working on a presentation, and you know your boss will likely ask about its progress every couple of minutes. Make a point to finish it early and send it to their email days before the deadline. Then, when they ask you about it, respond with something like, “I actually already emailed a draft for your review.” The more you do this, the more they’ll minimize the reminders.

5. Set boundaries

Working with someone who seems to have no boundaries means that you have to go ahead and set them. Workaholic bosses, for instance, often expect everyone to work extra hours or take on an unreasonable amount of work. However, you don't always have to oblige. Sometimes, it's OK to politely say no to your boss when you already have too much on your plate.

6. Stop assuming they know everything

Just because someone has a managerial title doesn’t mean that they have all the right answers, all the time—even if they act like they know everything. If you've been blindly following their instructions or guidance, but it ended up being non-beneficial to you, consider finding other mentors in the company or start trusting more in your own instincts.

7. Act as the leader

When dealing with an incompetent boss, sometimes it's best to make some leadership decisions on your own. Of course, you don't want to undermine your boss—this could cause more tension and worsen your relationship. The key is to trust your expertise within your area and make decisions that contribute to the team's success. Do it with proactivity, a desire to learn and grow, rather than as an attack on your boss's abilities.

8. Identify triggers

If your boss has anger management problems, identify what triggers their meltdowns and be extra militant about avoiding those. For example, does one of your managers get upset every time a task is delayed? Prioritize their assignments first. Is a typo or misspelled word extremely annoying to them? Work on improving your attention to detail and double-check any documents before sending them.

9. Seek help from a career coach

“It can be hard to do this work alone. A career coach can really be helpful,” Eonnet says. If you're dealing with an extremely toxic boss, seeking professional guidance could make all the difference in overcoming the daily challenges of this relationship. Career coaches can also help you develop a plan to change departments or companies if the situation is beyond repair.

10. Avoid future bad bosses

When interviewing with a new company, do your research ahead of time to make sure you're not getting into another situation with a less-than-ideal manager. Remember, you can also interview the interviewer by asking questions about the company culture and leadership style. If you know someone who works at the company, it's worth inviting them for lunch or coffee to gain insight into what it's like working there.

When you should try a more drastic approach

When you've tried everything and your boss' behavior remains the same, consider exploring external opportunities.

“If we’ve done the work to identify what is not working for us, tried to constructively engage our manager about our needs, and given them the opportunity to learn and adapt, but things are still not looking better, it may be time to change teams or organizations,” Eonnet says.

Staying in a toxic environment can take a toll on your mental health, and no job is worth enduring constant stress and anxiety. Besides that, your productivity may also decline, leading to more dissatisfaction with your work and tension with your boss.