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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Play Nicely With a Boss You Hate

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One of the best parts of being an adult is that, for the most part, we get to choose our friends and avoid our enemies. If you come across people you don’t play nicely with, you simply steer clear of them, right?

Sure, unless that someone turns out to be your boss. Not only can you not avoid this person, but you actually have to try to impress him or her.

Needless to say, it’s a delicate task, but I promise, it’s not impossible (I should know—I’ve had a few bosses who were most definitely not my BFFs in my day). Here’s how I managed to stay sane—and how you can, too.

Lesson #1: Bite Your Tongue

Most of the time, open communication and honesty is the best policy in a workplace relationship. But, when you have a boss you hate, I highly recommend opting for a more tight-lipped approach—it’s actually pretty tough to come across as “respectfully disagreeing” when you despise someone’s every move.

I learned this the hard way with my first horrible boss. I was a senior member of the team, and the company philosophy was that while my boss was technically in charge, we were all on the same level—you know, the ol’ “we’re a flat organization” mantra.

Well, one day I took that to heart and spoke my mind when my boss was being particularly, well, bossy. It did not go over well. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the shock on his face—and when he pulled me into a conference room and reminded me who was in charge, flat organization or not.

And you know what? He had a point. Yes, he was a jerk, but he was also my boss, and at the end of the day, he was the one who would determine whether I’d head up the next big project or if I got that bonus I’d been working so hard to earn.

In other words, I should’ve been worrying less about getting my point across—and more about not pissing off the person who could make (or break) my career.

Even if your boss encourages you to always speak your mind, trust me, there’s a line that probably shouldn’t be crossed, especially if whatever’s on your mind is telling your boss where to go. It’s just like our mothers taught us: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Lesson #2: Blow Off Steam

Keeping your mouth shut when you’d really like to say your piece can be exhausting, which is exactly how I learned the second lesson in dealing with a boss I despised.

I noticed this after putting lesson #1 into full rotation on a daily basis. I started clenching my teeth at work, drinking way too much coffee, and taking out my frustration on innocent colleagues, who had the misfortune of being in my path after a particularly painful tongue-biting session with my boss.

Fortunately—or maybe unfortunately—one of my teammates was in the same boat as far as his relationship with our boss, and gave me some good advice after hearing me grind my teeth from across the room. He casually walked over to my desk, and asked if I’d tried kickboxing.

I hadn’t, but had to admit that taking out all that pent up frustration on a punching bag that did not care what I said to it (and definitely had no say in my upcoming review) sounded pretty darn good. I signed up for a class that same night, and wow, what a difference it made.

For about a year, twice a week, I would let an ex-Marine scream orders at me while I punched and kicked the daylights out of inanimate objects. Not only did I get in fantastic shape, but every encounter with my boss became progressively less frustrating. Sure, I still had to keep my cool at the office, but the fallout afterward was much less pronounced, and lasted a matter of minutes, instead of hours.

If you have to force yourself to be nice and hold your tongue, eight hours per day, you’re going to need an outlet, so pick an exercise—the more sweat, the better—and commit to it at least a few times per week. You’ll find all that anger and frustration just melts away after a good workout, and your boss will be none the wiser.

Lesson #3: Be a Diplomat

If you’re lucky, the first two lessons will get you by most of the time, but occasionally, you may really need to confront your boss on an issue. This happened to me often, as I worked on a small team, and had to deal with my awful manager all day, every day. There were just some times when I had to disagree with him, and it was honestly hard to do without sounding bitchy.

That’s when I learned how to be a diplomat.

We had TVs all over the office and watched the news all day long. One day, there were two world leaders, who clearly did not like one another, sitting together, trying to come to an agreement on something sensitive, like world peace. I thought, hey, if they can do it, maybe I can, too. So, whenever my boss started to push me over the edge, I’d pretend I was an ambassador, dealing with a tough situation.

I didn’t like the situation, or him, but I had to choose my words carefully if I wanted to survive. It became a game for me, a game that soon took the sting out of dealing with my boss.

Working with people you can’t stand is unfortunately a fact of life. But, with a few crafty tricks up your sleeve, your boss will never know how often you considered spitting in his coffee; instead he’ll just know you as a respectful, diplomatic professional—one who just happens to know a lot about boxing.