7 Ways to Annoy the Boss (and Why You Should Avoid Them)

Steer clear of these pitfalls.

Posted Feb 14, 2017

There’s no doubt that succeeding in your career is directly related to succeeding at work, on a daily basis, by impressing your boss. Although this is a fact about which we are all aware, it’s one that is all too easy to ignore. The “boss” is someone who obviously controls your access to rewards in the workplace, but we all live to serve many “bosses,” depending on the context. Whether it’s the chair of a volunteer committee or the coordinator of neighborhood group, it seems that life is constantly made up of people we need to impress.

Research in the area of employee ratings comes the closest to understanding how our behaviors with the bosses in our life influence how they evaluate us. In a recent study on performance ratings by service frontline workers, Auckland University (Australia)’s Peter B. Kim and colleagues (2016) matched 220 pairs of employees and their supervisors on an employee performance rating scale. Agreement between the worker-boss dyads proved to be more predictive of healthy relationships and workplace performance than the individual ratings of either bosses or the workers themselves.

Thus, seeing yourself in the eyes of your supervisor can be an important step to getting along with your boss. If you think you’re doing far better than your boss thinks you are, this could lead to some recalcitrance on your part when your supervisor tries to give you constructive feedback. Recognizing your strengths and weaknesses will make you a better, and more supervisable, worker.

Another surprising research-based tip comes from an investigation of employee ratings based on whether their work shifts were in the morning or the afternoon. Showing up early in the morning for work seems to be a good way to impress a boss, but if your hours of employment are dictated as being later in the day, you won’t have much control over this path to good performance ratings. University of Washington’s Kai Chi Yam and colleagues (2014) completed a fascinating study of how early vs. late reporting workers are perceived by their supervisors. Except when the supervisors themselves were “owls” (i.e. those who preferred the evening themselves), the early workers seemed to retain an edge. Getting in for that early shift makes you seem more conscientious and therefore a better worker.

By extrapolation, not just getting to work early but also showing up early for anything involving you and one of your many bosses in life would seem to be an ideal way not to annoy that person. The only caveat would be that pointing out your earliness on a consistent basis could become its own source of annoyance as it seems a bit show-offy (especially if you've got a boss who's an owl). 

Another relevant concept comes from Chinese organizations, which emphasize the informal relationship between supervisor and supervisee known as “guanxi.”  Hohai University’s (Nanjing, China) Long Zhang and colleagues (2016) measured the motivational factors behind this “dyadic, particular, and sentimental tie” that develops between worker-boss pairings. Guanxi takes roots in mutual interests and benefits, according to the Chinese team, develops through social interactions, and facilitates exchanges of favors between supervisees and their leaders.  This type of bonding between boss and worker contrasts with the notion of leader-member exchange, or LMX, the more straightforward performance of job tasks for rewards (i.e. salary). Guanxi is more of an emotional and social bonding between the supervisor-supervisee pair based on their sense of connectedness, and LMX is more content and work-based.

Although guanxi may have more relevance in Chinese society, which emphasizes connectedness vs. Western-based individuality, it remains an interesting concept when understanding how supervisees can best get along with their supervisors in any culture. To understand the motives behind guanxi, Zhang et al. developed a motivational framework based on the dimensions of focus (self vs. other) and strategic orientation (exchange vs. relationship). The four quadrants produced by this crossing were: concern for career (self-exchange), concern for personal life (self-relationship), concern for the team (other-exchange), and concern for social desirability (other-relationship).  The most consistent predictor of guanxi in this study was concern for the team and concern for personal advancement was the least predictive of guanxi overall.

Understanding that relationships between bosses and workers can have interpersonal and motivational components that operate outside of the simple exchange of work for pay can help provide insight into ways to ensure that we do not annoy our bosses. Being a good team player is a big part of this picture, at least based on the Zhang et al. study.

With these ideas in mind, here are your seven ways to “annoy” your boss along with the advice to keep you from being a thorn in your boss's side:

  1. Try to show you’re superior to your boss: Remember that study on early vs. late workers? If you’re playing the game of one-upmanship with the clock, this can backfire. Other methods of showing superiority such as using your body language to take control of the room will also lead your boss to feel that you are unsupervisable.
  2. Show up late: Being obnoxiously early (and pointing it out) will be annoying enough, but being consistently late is even worse. Whether you're doing this out of passive-aggressiveness or just plain old procrastination, the result will be a boss who is miffed at your unreliability.
  3. Focus on yourself to the exclusion of your boss and the team: Pretending that you can operate as an independent agent when, in fact, you are part of a dyad or team will make you particularly annoying to those whose job it is to guide and work alongside you.
  4. Ignore the interpersonal aspects of your relationship with your boss: How do you behave at meetings either as a group or in a one-on-one situation? Are you constantly glancing down at your phone or laptop? Do you avoid eye contact? Do you start side conversations with others in the group or interrupt? These impolite behaviors will signal that you don’t feel you need to stick to ordinary conventions of getting along with others.
  5. Complain to your boss’s boss: There's no better way to undermine a relationship than to go behind the other person's back. If you have a gripe with your boss, don’t make your first step a trip to the boss’s supervisor. Begin by voicing the things that bother you to your boss and try to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.
  6. Overstep the bounds of your relationship: Although guanxi can build emotional connections between bosses and their workers, take care not to confuse work-related goals (via the LMX model) with social ones. Prying into your supervisor’s personal life and then, even worse, sharing the information with others, is certain to make your boss feel angry and exploited.
  7. Lie. Not telling the truth is particularly foolish at work, where you are likely to be detected eventually. It will also cause your relationship with your boss to go very quickly downhill. Mistakes can be forgiven, and even some of the above missteps can create problems in establishing guanxi, but when you violate trust with your supervisor even with a small and silly lie, this trust will be very hard to restore.

Good relationships with your bosses, whether your official or unofficial ones, can enhance your fulfillment in both paid and unpaid contexts. We all have jobs to do, and we’re much happier when we can do those in a positive emotional environment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Kim, P. B., & Carlson, K. D. (2016). Agreement on service performance ratings between frontline employees and their supervisor. Journal of Service Theory And Practice, 26(5), 721-740. doi:10.1108/JSTP-04-2015-0110

Yam, K. C., Fehr, R., & Barnes, C. M. (2014). Morning employees are perceived as better employees: Employees’ start times influence supervisor performance ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(6), 1288-1299. doi:10.1037/a0037109

Zhang, L., Deng, Y., Zhang, X., & Hu, E. (2016). Why do Chinese employees build supervisor-subordinate guanxi? A motivational analysis. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 33(3), 617-648. doi:10.1007/s10490-015-9430-3