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5 Ways To Survive A Difficult Boss

by susancfoster on March 23, 2017

We’ve all had them at one time or another—a difficult boss is one who is rude or passive-aggressive, gives little guidance on what’s expected, says everything is a priority, or dismisses your ideas but takes credit for them.  You are looking for a new job, but in the meantime you need to survive without letting the stress make you sick, and you need to leave with a good reputation if possible.

Unfortunately, this is a common challenge. A Gallup study released in 2015 found that 50 percent of the adults surveyed left a job to get away from their managers. You are not alone–but you can get through it.

Here are some ways you can survive—and thrive—until you can find a job that suits you better.

Identify their real priorities

At times, the “stated” priorities of the company aren’t really what your boss wants, but you can always find out what they are.  Their priority today is whatever their boss wants.  Look at the bigger picture to identify the priorities two levels up—what their boss’s boss wants.  Helping a difficult boss solve his or her own stressors will get their gratitude and lessen your stress.

Support their weaknesses with your strengths

If your boss doesn’t give guidance on what’s expected, perhaps he or she doesn’t know. It’s just a fact of life that managers are sometimes promoted into jobs they don’t belong in. Sometimes it’s because they are friends with their boss, because they were good in a technical role, or they didn’t get adequate training to be a leader.  Identify those weaknesses and supplement it with your strengths.  For example, if your boss is a big-picture person but doesn’t know how to do a project, show your boss that you understand the details on how to get from big idea to a completed project.

Keep them informed/check in often

When difficult bosses are micro-managers, it’s usually because they are insecure, or just don’t know how to lead. Instead of waiting to be asked, set up a regular time to just drop by and inform them on the latest status of your project.  Late afternoons before you go home is a good time.  That way, the next morning they will likely go to someone else, because they already have an update with you.

Clarify expectations

Sometimes a difficult boss gives little or no guidance. Have a conversation to find out exactly what your boss thinks a successful project would look like.  A good way to do this is say, “To you, this project will be successful if…” and wait for an answer. If you don’t get one, tell your boss what you think it is. Then ask: “Is that your vision, or is it different?” You will also want to ask why is the project being done, by when, who all is involved, what their roles and responsibilities are, the interim reporting requirements, the level of authority your team has before they come to him/her, and what risks you need to know. Writing that down in front of your difficult boss lets them know you are keeping a record of their guidance.

Set your boundaries

Know what you will tolerate and what you won’t. There’s always a way to handle a difficult boss who is rude.  Remember, you want to set the tone and guide your own reactions. No matter what, answer your boss in a positive tone without appearing angry or impatient. Avoid getting into an expectation of being “on call” after you leave work. You have been proactive by informing your boss of the status of your projects, so don’t react to work calls after hours unless there is a true emergency.

This kind of boss isn’t easy to survive, but when you are the boss, you will remember it as an example of what kind not to be.

How are some ways you’ve handled a difficult boss?



Susan C. Foster is a former executive-turned-turned coach and a recovering 24/7 workaholic. She helps leaders build great organizations and have a life in the process. She’s the author of “It’s Not Rocket Science: Leading, Inspiring and Motivating Your Team To Be Their Best,” and can be found at www.susancfoster.com.

Welcome to Leaders in Heels

Susan C. Foster is an Executive Coach, former NASA and Army executive, and a recovering 24/7 workaholic who believes everyone can learn to be a great leader. She is the author of "It's Not Rocket Science: Leading, Inspiring, and Motivating Your Team To Be Their Best." You can reach her at www.susancfoster.com.
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