Author Janice Davies said, “difficult people are your key to self empowerment, you need to learn how to cope with them, not let them dominate and affect you.” But what if the difficult person is your boss? What then?
In over 20 years of working in my chosen career I have largely had what I can only suppose is the greatest luck in selecting my bosses. Most have been more than fair, have taught me along the way as true mentors, and several I still count as friends and advisors to this day. A couple, however, have truly been nightmares.
Everyone has their own gauge for what makes a boss difficult to work with, but mine comes down to more of a feeling than a set of concrete habits. And when I say difficult, I’m not referring here to a demanding boss, or one who expects results and calls you out for not achieving the results; that’s just the price of admission in the corporate world. I’m talking about when things reach a level of difficulty where you begin fearing for your job.
The problems in dealing with difficult people are, by nature, made even more difficult when that person is largely in charge of your ability to provide for your family. Your stress levels can increase, you start taking out your frustrations on the other people in your life that you work with or care about, and your overall health and outlook can become markedly more negative, leading to a decrease in productivity.
Below are some strategies I have found that have helped me, and I hope that some or all can help you should you find yourself in the position of having to deal with a difficult boss.
Adjust — As much as possible, try to adjust to the new reality of the situation. Sometimes, as people are put in new positions they can feel overwhelmed, under pressure, and are themselves dealing with difficult relationships upstream. With any luck, this period of difficulty will pass and you’ll find that you’re able to cultivate a strong, trusted relationship with your new boss.
Be Proactive — Try to anticipate your bosses needs before he or she knows they have a need. If they’re under pressure, and you can be the go-to-person that hands them reports, deliverables, etc., ahead of them asking, you’ll have gone a long way towards easing the relationship into a better place.
A lot of times this comes from understanding your boss’s role in the company. For instance, I report to the CFO at my company–a role which is largely concerned with budgeting, forecasting, and generally dealing with the financial health of the company. Everything that I do in the technical sphere is couched in terms of impact to the bottom line of the company. That’s a gross over-simplification, of course, but the point is that you need to understand your boss, what their role in the company is, and how you can help to make them look good to their boss.
Don’t React Emotionally — I can’t tell you how many times after reading an email I’ve wanted to walk down the hall to my boss’s office, storm in, and start loudly expounding on my view of the world and my boss’s place in it. I have seen that happen, and while I sometimes get a little joy in the vicariousness of the thing, I never indulge myself in the same behavior. I respond eventually, but not quickly or emotionally.
I’m not suggesting you ignore emails, phone calls, memos, or random edicts at all. In fact, I have a general rule of trying to respond to anything that comes my way by the close of business the same day. If it comes from my boss, I respond within two hours even after-hours. That said, you can acknowledge something simply, directly, and without emotion. If, a few hours later you still feel the need to have a conversation, you’ll have given the heat-of-the-moment emotions a chance to simmer down.
I have sent some serious flame-thrower emails in my day–some to vendors, some to co-workers, and even some to people I’ve worked for. Do you know the one thing every one of those emails in the last 20 years has had in common? Within minutes or hours I regretted sending them–each and every one. A little bit of time would go by and I’d increasingly start feeling like the petulant child I was acting like. Almost inevitably I’d trudge off somewhere to make an apology–not because I had to, but because I felt I needed to.
Learn from the Experience — Many of us either lead teams today, or will lead teams in the future. Even if leadership roles aren’t what you personally aspire to, the time will probably come where you will find yourself leading a team of some size. The experiences you have with your bosses should be suggestive of the type of leader you want to be. We all love the good ones, but sometimes it’s the bad bosses that teach us more in the end.
Know When to Walk Away — The relationship you have with your boss should never feel personally negative. By that I mean that you should never feel as if your boss **hates** you, or wants you to fail, or has no confidence in you as a person. Good bosses will let you know if you’re not meeting expectations long before it becomes an issue. If your boss is making your life miserable without any sort of useful feedback, then it’s likely one of two things is going on:
- They’re a miserable prick, and want everyone who works for them to feel the same way.
- They don’t have the self-confidence to sit down with you and tell you that they have no confidence in you. So, they walk around with a massive grudge, hoping that you’ll leave and they won’t have to deal with the problem any longer.
In either case, this is probably the point where you have to consider that things may not get better, and perhaps walk away. Work relationships should never be personally negative, but we’re all human beings and sometimes things just don’t work out. It’s irritating, often feels unfair, but it’s the way things sometimes are and we just have to deal with it as best we can.
Whatever you do, don’t follow your first instinct, and freak out. Don’t write up a nasty letter, or tell the person what you really think. Just follow the process professionally, and if you really need to vent a bit, that’s what your Human Resources department is for. Even then, however, nobody likes a whiner so try to keep your criticism as constructive, professional, and impersonal as possible.
Then, do what I do: go home, kick off your shoes, pour a nice drink, and celebrate your unbelievable good fortune to not have to deal with that boss ever again. Just don’t make a habit of it… after a string of bad bosses, you might have to consider that the problem wasn’t with them.