We've all had bosses who are difficult to deal with. Bosses who are inconsistent or unprofessional, bosses who put you in a no-win situation, backstabbing bosses, or bosses who are downright bullies. Here are four strategies to use to deal with your difficult boss.
1. Be Proactive. In all likelihood, you are frustrated with your difficult boss because he or she consistently displays bad behavior. It is the pattern of bad behavior that drives you crazy (or in some cases, the boss's inconsistent behavior, as in you-never-know-what-you're-going-to-get). The best way to deal with a difficult boss is to have a plan of action in place.
As one client told me, "When the boss calls an ‘emergency' staff meeting, we usually know that she is going to go off on us. She'll either rant and rave or give us the icy and disgusted treatment. But sometimes she's fine, but we always feel like we are walking into a trap."
The key is to anticipate the boss's bad behavior. Have an action plan ready. If the boss behaves badly, put your plan into action. If the boss is on his/her best behavior, reinforce the good behavior ("Nice meeting." "Thanks!").
Be proactive by approaching the situation with a positive mental attitude. Display confidence and stay poised. If your boss is a bully, this will show that you are not intimidated by the bullying behavior.
2. Be Prepared. You likely know the difficult boss's pattern of bad behavior, so anticipate and prepare your responses beforehand. Write them on index cards, and practice delivering them.
"Boss, when you do that, it isn't motivating me..." or "...it only makes us feel like you don't value our work..." or stronger statements, such as "That kind of behavior is unacceptable."
You also should anticipate the bad boss's comeback, and have your response or action plan in place. If the boss begins to rant and rave, you can leave and say, "I'll come back when you are calmed down and civil." Think of it as a chess match, and be prepared several "moves" in advance.
You will also need to be prepared for the fallout of standing up to a difficult or bullying boss. The boss might single you out for even worse treatment or might sanction or fire you. That is why it is important to think things through beforehand. What are you willing to do? What are your options? Can you deal with the possible worst outcomes?
3. Be Professional. This is critically important. Always take the high road. Follow proper procedures for registering complaints with Human Resources, or higher-level superiors. Maintain a calm and professional demeanor in dealing with your difficult boss, and don't get into a shouting match or let your emotions get out of hand. Don't resort to name-calling or rumor-mongering, but be straightforward and professional.
4. Be Persistent. It isn't likely that your difficult boss situation will change overnight, so be prepared for the long haul. Moreover, be persistent in calling out your boss's bad behavior, and putting your plan into action. Your coworkers might follow your lead and start to stand up to the difficult boss as well (although you should be prepared for the boss to try to turn them against you, or for your coworkers' possible lack of support). The key is to not let your boss get away with continuing his/her bad behavior.
Here are some resources:
Is Your Boss a Bully?: Take This Test!
Gary Namie & Ruth Namie (2009). The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (2nd ed.), Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
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