Experts reveal strategies on how to make a difficult boss work for you. —By Michael Martin
As long as there's been work, there's been a boss that seems hell-bent on making life miserable.
And although we tend to reflexively chafe against The Man (or The Woman) just because he/she is, when it becomes tougher for you to deal with the boss than to do your actual work, it's time to do something about it.
There are infinite ways to define a "difficult" supervisor: Overly demanding, capricious, inconsiderate. Just like Potter Stewart's view on porn, you know it when you see it. "Most often, I hear that they're not understanding, they yell, they're not respectful, they're not communicative, all they do is comment negatively," says Jean Mone, a psychotherapist in New York. "There's a belittling aspect to their behavior."
So how do you turn things around? Or do you just turn around and keep walking? The former is always a better first step. Here's some expert advice.
"Remaining calm even though your boss may provoke you is the best step you can take," says Lynn Taylor in Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior. "Approach the situation in a positive manner, disarming them with a calm, professional, rational style instead of getting swept up in the hysteria. Being even-keeled and having the ability to shake off stress is contagious."
2Don't take it personally
Whether your boss is outright ranting or subtly condescending, it's never something to internalize. "If you weren't there, somebody else would be in your place, getting the abuse," says Mone. "It's a projection on you. It's not about you." Is there constructive criticism in what your supervisor's saying? Take that, but disconnect your ego from the way he said it.
3Study the boss
Try to understand where your supervisor is coming from. What makes him tick? What are his ambitions? What are his fears? Understand his negative motivators, but don't absorb them. Empathy will help you deal with the situation and detach from it emotionally. "The fact is, your boss is not going to change," says Mone. "You're going to have to alter the way you deal with a difficult person."
4Be solution based
If you've made a mistake, own it immediately and say you'll fix it — no excuses. If your boss loses his cool about missed targets, acknowledge his frustration and offer a solution. "Saying things like 'That must make you very upset' or 'How can I help with the backlog?' defuses anger," says Taylor. "A boss's blame can become apologetic shame if you handle it right."
5Be assertive, but not defensive or aggressive
"Talk with your boss constantly, but respond to them — don't react," says Mone. If, for example, a boss belittles you in a meeting, pull them aside and say, "I'd appreciate it if you have an issue with my work, if we could set up a meeting and talk about it face-to-face, so I can improve." Speak with surety and clarity, suggests Mone, using phrases such as, "I would appreciate," "Would you please" and "I would like."
Is the boss denying that you sent him that proposal you worked on until 3 am, or worse, accusing you of losing a major account because he never saw it? Forward him the original email, print it out, and keep it. Take notes on any conversations about your performance, and your responses.
7Don't go to HR
The Human Resources department works for the company and management — not you. If you go to HR with complaints, they'll make their way back to your boss. Resolve the issues one-on-one.
8Know when you're being bullied
Are you being targeted for criticism while your co-workers' mistakes are allowed to slide? Is your boss negative toward you 24-7, without pausing to celebrate when a deadline is met or account is won? They may have crossed the line from demanding to abusive, which can quickly take a toll on your physical and mental health. According to a 2014 survey, 56 percent of workplace bullies are supervisors. "The difference between a difficult and an abusive or bullying boss is when the target's health is compromised," says Gary Namie, PhD, of the Workplace Bullying Institute. "Nobody deserves cardiovascular disease because of a paycheck, no matter how big the paycheck is."
9Know when to say when
You took the job because you loved it. Now you're crawling home on the weekends and getting into bed. Your doctor's talking antidepressants and furrowing his brow over your EKG. "You took the job because you love the job, but when you started to get serious stress-related health problems, forget it — your job ended," says Namie. "You have to put your well-being first and move on."
10Use the experience to your advantage
But ideally it won't come to that, and your boss is more Michael Scott than Patrick Bateman. Just don't assume that switching offices will solve your problems forever. "You can jump from one job to another, but this kind of person is going to come back again. So solidify a strategy to deal with them," says Mone. "No matter how difficult the boss, you can always use the experience to learn about yourself."