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How to deal with a difficult boss
People don't quit their jobs; they quit their managers. It's not just the nature of the work that frustrates people, or the long hours, or even the low pay. More often than not, it's the employee's manager that sends them running.
If you've ever had a bad manager, you'd probably have your own views on the subject, but the most common complaints include: poor communication, unrealistic demands, bad listening skills, and lack of support. In the worst cases, it’s a combination of all of these factors. The good news, however, is that it's often within your power to improve the situation.
5 common types of difficult bosses
Personal preferences aside, there are some management styles that just really don’t work – the team environment gets negative, too competitive or everyone’s too afraid to question anything out of fear of losing their jobs. Is your boss one of these?
This is the boss who asks that you report to them when you breathe. Micromanagers are known for standing over your shoulder and dictating exactly how a task should be done, how an email should be written and monitoring your progress every five minutes to ensure everything is executed to a 'T'.
You’ll know if you’ve ever worked with this type – they’d be impossible to miss. This is the type of manager that has an overinflated sense of self and everything is about them. From stopping the entire team’s working day to talk about their weekend, to having the IT department drop their projects to jailbreak their new iPhone, there’s nothing that this supervisor won’t do to make sure they stay ‘super’.
This is the boss who rules with an iron fist. Their team is perfectly disciplined and always delivers on time, primarily out of sheer terror that they’ll be given the sack if they don’t (likely because it’s already happened). While some level of order and control is healthy, like the micro manager, this type of environment is likely to stifle creativity and ultimately there’s only so much fear that quality employees are willing to take before they start looking for something else.
The ‘One of the Gang’ Boss
This is the boss who spends more of their time getting their team to like them than they do actually managing them. From an employee side, this may seem like fun at first – chances are they’ll be less demanding and you’ll be much more likely to knock off early for after work drinks. But the boss who’s your friend can become difficult to work for; the team as a whole can lack focus, which can ultimately result in a lack of motivation and direction and can limit career growth.
The Office Psychopath
Studies have shown that senior employees have more clinically consistent ‘psychopathic’ tendencies compared with the rest of the population. Being able to think strategically and work well with others are traits that make for a successful manager, but they’re also the skills of the office psychopath who can manipulate their staff into a false sense of security.
How to handle a difficult boss in 4 steps
Need to deal with a difficult boss? Try these four tips.
1. Get to the root of the problem
Most problems in the workplace stem from poor communication. Therefore, if you can improve the communication flow between you and your boss, you're on your way to a much happier and more productive time at work.
The fact of the matter is that most managers could be better communicators, but they are not always aware of it – they are, after all, human. They may be under the impression that their expectations and goals will somehow 'trickle down' to their staff without them ever having to explicitly communicate these goals. When this is the case, many employees are left without a clear idea of what they are working towards.
Try asking your manager for the information you should be receiving, but be diplomatic. This doesn’t need to be awkward or confrontational: most managers will be appreciative of the fact that you want to have a clearer idea of the company and where you fit into it.
It's often best to schedule a proper appointment and to state why you're there and what you want to achieve – if there is a particular project you are working on, you can ask for a check-in on that project, and make sure you have a clear outline of where the project should be headed. If your productivity improves as a result of this communication, your boss may have learned a useful lesson.
2. Open the lines of communication
Scheduling a meeting should probably be your first move, no matter what issue you're experiencing with your manager. If you’re having difficulty finding time with your manager to communicate your concerns, or don’t feel comfortable talking to them about the matter in front of others, ask for a formal meeting at a set time.
This approach is particularly useful if your boss is making unrealistic demands on you. If this is the case, it's probably because he or she is unaware of what you're doing. Explain the projects you have, together with a time estimate for each, and ask your manager to help you prioritise what you have to do.
You'd be surprised how many managers don't know what an employee's role actually requires, let alone their day-to-day work. If you're feeling unsupported or misunderstood by your manager, bear in mind that they may not be aware of what your role entails.
Ask your manager to set you some goals or go over your role in relation to the overall company structure. At the very least, this will be a good starting point for clarifying their misconceptions about your position, and may help them have a clearer idea of your workload.
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3. Make sure your voice is heard
Poor listening skills are often cited as an annoying trait of managers. It's not that they don't communicate, but that the communication is one way. In this case, it is particularly important that you plan what you are going to talk about before going ahead with a meeting.
Make a list ahead of time detailing what you want to bring up, and make sure you can edit as you go so that if something occurs to you, it won’t be missed. Keeping the list with you allows you to keep track of what you have or haven’t gotten to say, so that if you are interrupted or the topic of conversation shifts, you still have the record and can bring it up later.
Try not to leave the meeting until you have established what you want to say. Even if the meeting seems to be at an end and there’s something still unsaid, feel free to ask your manager to circle back to the previous topic.
4. If all else fails… start your job search
So far, we have talked about your manager changing. But what if, despite your best efforts, nothing happens? In this case, provided you really would prefer to stay where you are, you will have no choice but to change yourself.
David McClelland, one of the most influential twentieth-century researchers and writers on motivation identified three major motivators in life: affiliation, power and achievement. Observe and mirror your manager's primary motivator (we all have all three in differing amounts) and you will get on their wavelength. So, if your boss is motivated by achievement, people issues will be a low priority but targets will be paramount; if the major driver is affiliation, you need to think in people terms; and in the case of power, be very, very careful.
Getting on your manager's wavelength can be a big adaptation to make. Are you willing to learn different techniques and prioritise things that don't come naturally to you? Only you can make that evaluation.
It can sometimes be easier to find another job than adopt an unfavourable working style. If you've really lost all hope of improving your relationship with your manager, sticking with your job could damage your self-confidence and, eventually, your ability to do the job well.
If you think your boss is too difficult to manage, it may be time to start talking to a recruiter. Contact a Michael Page specialist today.