Quaking in Your Cubicle: Dealing With a Difficult Boss

Surveys show a high correlation between job satisfaction and liking and respecting workplace superiors, yet few are awarded “Boss of the Year.”  So, unless you’re independently wealthy, chances are one day you’ll encounter a difficult boss.

Common complaints involve bosses with a negative or pessimistic attitude, those who offer limited direction, hover over employees, claim undeserved credit, speak critically of others, withhold recognition of success, correct in front of others, play favorites, speak when angry, exhibit moodiness, refuse to listen, pass the buck, make destructive comments, and fail to express gratitude.

Fortunately, there are constructive steps you can take to effectively address the problem.

Clarify the problem.  Answer these questions: What specific behaviors are problems for me?  What might cause or motivate my boss’s behavior?  Which concerns seem to be within his power to control – and which are not?  Then summarize each concern in a sentence and imagine yourself calmly and objectively sharing your insights and concerns with your boss.

Talk with your boss.  Don’t confront when you’re frustrated or upset.  Rather, request an opportunity to discuss some ideas you have for working together more effectively.  Preface comments with, “You may not be aware…” or “You may have not noticed…”  Remember to address behaviors, not character or personality.

Control your emotions.  You’ll weaken your credibility if you strike back or question your boss’s authority.  You’re in charge of your responses and you can choose to keep them in check.  Note: The longer you postpone addressing your concerns, the more likely your emotions will intensify and become a greater source of stress.

Manage your self-talk and attitude.  Start each day focusing on things you enjoy about your job.  Work on developing an attitude of positive expectancy, realizing that your boss’s behavior can change.  Resist labels like “jerk,” “tyrant,” “idiot,” etc.  Negative characterizations make it harder for you to see and acknowledge anything positive.

Take responsibility for your part.  The boss may be difficult, but are you contributing to the problem?  Examine your own attitude and behavior and see if there’s anything you could change to improve the situation.  This will also help you turn your focus off your boss (whom you cannot control) to yourself (whom you can).  Always maintain a strong work ethic and a high level of performance.

Differentiate between a frustrating relationship and a bad boss. Sometimes personality and work style differences can cause conflict.  Your miscommunications, disagreements, and unmet expectations may decrease significantly if you simply understand each other better.

Document your experiences.  If offenses occur repeatedly, accurately record each incident.  If you can’t resolve the problems one-on-one and you need to include others in the process, it’s best to rely on documentation, not just your memory.  Caution: don’t obsess over “building a case” against your boss by including every little detail.  That can further sour your attitude and negatively impact your performance.

Seek support.  Check out your observations with one or two trusted co-workers to see if they’ve had similar experiences.  Don’t let these conversations turn into gossip or gripe sessions or they’ll only add to your stress and possibly undermine the attitudes of your co-workers.

Get counsel from a mature leader or Human Resource professional. Before your stress and frustration get out of control, consult with people who can guide you through the process of constructive change.  Your HR department or a mentor in the company can often provide excellent suggestions and options for relief and resolution.

Consider an alternate plan.  Occasionally the best solution is to leave.  Explore options within your company as well as outside.  Let your network of contacts know you’re open to new opportunities. While a job change can be stressful, it’s often the stepping stone to greater fulfillment, satisfaction and success.

Live, work and relate well!

Dr. Todd

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