Having a job you love but a difficult boss can be a frustrating combination. Too often we are put in the position where we think we have to choose between the two. How many times have we heard of cases where competent and qualified managers who have lots to contribute to an organization’s growth are forced to leave because the people they report to are so difficult to deal with?
Fortunately such extremes are not always the case. In approaching the challenge of such a boss, one has to look at it from a cost/benefit perspective. Ask yourself the question “is the price of putting up with this individual worth the career payoff?” If the reality is that you will probably be moving on and up relatively shortly, then it is wise to look at the situation as a temporary difficulty to be dealt with. If, on the other hand, your association with this individual is long term and unlikely to change, then you need to figure out a new strategy—for example, looking elsewhere within your company or at opportunities at other firms.
If your analysis does show that it is worth staying and trying to cope with unpredictable behaviors, then try to depersonalize the situation.
Most bosses are not likely to change so it is your job to figure out how to make the best of the situation. Focus on the work rather than the person. For example, if a boss is constantly changing direction, don’t waste energy on how much their inability to stick with a decision annoys you. Rather, focus on what this behavior does to the business –in this case, incremental labor and material expenses to accommodate last minute changes, and see how you can influence this.
The difficult boss comes in all shapes and sizes. Many have very good leadership qualities mixed in with annoying habits so be sure to see the big picture when evaluating what really needs attention and what you can live with. Here are some basic boss prototypes, together with some suggestions on how to better manage them and examples of real life managers who have successfully used these tools to better the various relationships:
- The Micromanager
This boss is the one that spends an unnecessary amount of time managing the minute details of your job. Because of their constant questions and interruptions they make getting your job done a nightmare. There is really no reason why they should be involved with such activities; what it often comes down to is insecurity on their part and an inability to delegate effectively.
Encouraging these type of bosses to let go is really about building trust and their confidence in you. The best way to do this is to keep them informed about everything you are working on. Emailing them updates and status reports of various projects will assure them that they don’t need to be as intimately involved. Ideally, over time, they will reduce involvement and intercede only at crucial points.
One client I worked with who encountered the “micromanager” boss was in charge of all publications for a non-profit organization. His new boss managed his department in addition to the organization’s larger fund-raising function. She knew little about the details of how he actually performed his day-to-day job yet constantly questioned even the smallest of decisions. Over time my client proactively briefed her on all of his projects. He purposefully only gave her “topline” information—that is, enough to make her comfortable enough to know that all projects were progressing properly on time and on budget. She gradually reduced her daily involvement and instead focused on her main area of expertise which was fundraising.
- The Absentee
This individual is the polar opposite of the Micromanager. Absentees are simply not available —they are either always out of the office or in meetings. The inaccessibility of these type of bosses continually frustrates those who report to them. With no contact, their staff members don’t get the proper direction to get their jobs correctly done. In some cases they themselves are over-worked and simply can’t find time to work with their staffs. But it is more likely that they simply are disinterested in what you are doing and/or insensitive to the fact that you may need guidance.
To work with this type of boss you need to demand time—ideally, face-to-face or at least on the phone. Respect that they are busy but also make it known the importance of their input that will allow you to continue work on your projects.
It is best to come to them with a clear-cut summary of issues and your succinct recommendations. Another useful tool is to send an agenda ahead of time so the boss will be briefed as to what you are going to cover. It is also wise to proactively brief such a boss on everything you are doing in writing, making it clear that unless you hear otherwise you will assume your activities are in line with their thinking.
Having a boss who worked in a different county was a challenging situation faced by an international investment banker I worked with. The boss physically saw his subordinates only once a year and would communicate only by email. My client worked relatively independently but often found himself in need of direction at key points. Finding that the projects were floundering due to proper upper management direction, the stateside manager made it clear that the business would suffer if the two of them did not have more contact. The banker based in New York arranged for a monthly conference call during which he efficiently came to his boss with key issues and recommendations. The boss realized the value of these interfaces as ways of understanding what was happening that could possibly impact the final outcome of projects. Both parties could thus discuss alternative strategies together as opposed to the New York manager having to make decisions in a “vacuum”.
- The Waffler
This boss simply can’t make a decision and when they finally do be prepared for constant changes. Many are insecure managers—perhaps in new positions or roles for which they not are properly qualified. These are the ones who look to everyone—above, below and at their own levels-- for advice. They are often reticent to take a stand or defend a point of view.
One needs to “manage up’ with such individuals. Keep detailed documentation as to what was agreed upon in past meetings/conversations. Remind these bosses what the financial implications for each change in direction are. Nothing will change behavior quicker than a boss realizing the budget—his or her key report card—is suffering because of constant changes in direction.
A bank advertising director I coached was responsible for managing all of the print and television advertising development for a bank’s credit card business.
He would bring approved work to his boss who would usually approve the general direction on what was being done. The “waffler” boss would then show the work to his superiors. If they disagreed, the boss would invariably give in and send the work back down the line for revisions. This boss was really nothing more than a paper pusher and could never stick to a decision. My client was able to abort the constant changes in direction simply by pointing out the effect that constant changes was having on the budget. When the boss saw the effects, for instance, of reshooting a 30 second commercial again, he quickly changed his behavior—learning to take a firm stand with his bosses.
- The Bully
This is often the hardest boss to deal with. Why they are rude, abrasive and autocratic is not your problem. How it affects your ability to work is. These bosses usually dominate every conversation and give little time for a true conversation. They rarely focus on your successes, often take credit for things that they did not actually do and are constantly pushing. In a nutshell, nothing is ever good enough for them.
Dealing with their anger or outbursts is about maintaining control. Don’t match their voice volume but actually strive to speak softer. Remaining silent and letting them vent will actually give you power. Try to isolate what they see as the primary issue at hand. Get them to prioritize what needs attention and always bring the conversation back to what you two can do together to move the business forward. Most importantly, don’t be reticent to enlist the help of upper management and/or human resources if this boss remains continually abusive.
I worked with a Director of Marketing for an architecture firm whose multiple responsibilities included sales, public relations and collateral materials development. His “bully” boss was always hounding him 3 or 4 times a day as to what new leads he had in the pipeline and if they were going to make monthly sales quotas. The boss often embarrassed my client in partner meetings, quizzing him about the status of even the most low-priority items. The Marketing Director, with the support of the other partners, confronted the bully. My client asked for a prioritization of goals. As sales became the focus, my client made it know that in order to do a thorough job on all aspects of his original job description that he needed to hire an assistant. The boss quickly recognized the workload issue and authorized the hire of another marketing department member.
A difficult boss is not likely to change. Being attuned to the pressures they may be facing within your organization will help you get a balanced view of the situation. Once you understand the pattern of their actions, you will be able to use your own management tools to begin to modify their behaviors. Life in your workplace will never be perfect but following some of these suggestions will ideally improve the situation. Most importantly, you won’t be placed in the position of having to choose between job and boss.
Bradford Agry is a career and executive coach who works with individuals who are seeking to make career transitions or improve their productivity within existing positions. He has written on a number of workplace and career-related topics, which have appeared in publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal