advertisement
advertisement

How to do your best work when you have a difficult boss

Try a few of these techniques when dealing with a prickly or unhelpful manager.

How to do your best work when you have a difficult boss
[Photo: Anna Shvets/Unsplash]
advertisement
advertisement

Not every boss is perfect, and it’s probably unfair to expect them to be. But research shows you likely prefer the predictability of a consistently lukewarm boss to the ups and downs of a manager who is a loose cannon.

advertisement
advertisement

There is a bright side to this seemingly lesser-evil situation. No matter what kind of boss you have, you can succeed and grow your career.

To provide some scientific background: It’s helpful to keep in mind the human being’s craving for certainty. Again and again, brain science finds that we seek to repeat what we know, and we tend to avoid uncertainty, ambiguity, or situations that introduce doubt. It stands to reason. In terms of evolution, repeating what worked has kept us from predators and helped ensure we’d have access to food and water. Over time, we have learned to prefer what is clear and certain.

The aforementioned new study proves this desire for certainty shows up in our preference for bosses. In fact, based on biometric indications of stress and survey results, people across industries, from retail to healthcare to technology, prefer bosses who are consistent in their behaviors. When people are exposed to unpredictable treatment, they experience greater stress, job dissatisfaction, and emotional exhaustion.

advertisement
advertisement

The lesson is when you’re considering a new position, assess your new boss as carefully as the new role. It will matter to your happiness and fulfillment. But what if you’re already in a role and your boss is falling short? After all, not all leaders are stellar, and not all managers have well-developed managerial skills. Fortunately, you can respond to the situation in a way so you still succeed.

First, take steps to manage your boss. Help them win, have their back, keep them in the loop, and take initiative. All of these will contribute to the relationship you’re building with them.

Take ownership

It’s easy to feel down if you’re not getting what you need from your boss. But remind yourself about your ability to influence the relationship and your future. Start by performing with excellence and being above reproach. If your boss is hypercritical, do your best not to give them anything to be critical about. Moreover, stay professional and opt for the high road, when applicable. If your boss demonstrates bad behavior, don’t stoop to their level.

advertisement

Foster an open relationship with your boss where you give them feedback and talk about what you need. Most leaders appreciate insight into how to guide and motivate team members, and what kind of career development you seek. By being transparent, you’ll set the stage for a relationship between equals—where you respect your boss and they respect you.

Further, be confident. I once worked with a company where the leader of a department was unusually tall. She was also especially unfair to one of the team members who–true story—happened to be unusually short. Lara would regularly use her height to tower over Gisa. One day, during a particularly heated exchange, Gisa had had enough, and she stood on a conference table to get the height advantage over Lara. It was a turning point in their relationship, and, remarkably, Lara treated Gisa with a new level of respect from then on.

While I don’t recommend standing on the conference table for obvious safety reasons, it’s a striking and memorable example. Standing up for yourself (sometimes, quite literally) is important to putting yourself on solid ground with your boss.

advertisement

Give your boss the benefit of the doubt

The example with Lara and Gisa is extreme—but before you get to a point of such intensity, it’s a good idea to start with giving your boss the benefit of the doubt. Even if your boss comes across as disagreeable (for instance, quarrelsome, selfish, cold, or callous), consider their behavior may not be about you. It’s possible—and even likely—they are struggling with their own stressors at home or work. Perhaps they are trying and simply attempting to find a style that works for them. They may not even be aware of their impact—their intent may be very different than their demeanor. Be empathetic toward your boss and remind yourself they are only human and struggling just as you are.

As much as possible, show your boss appreciation. While it may feel like a stretch if they aren’t providing terrific leadership, it can actually help you in the end. Gratitude is correlated with greater mental health, so that’s good for you. And a recent study found when leaders feel more appreciated, they tend to feel greater levels of energy, well-being, optimism, and life satisfaction. All of this translates into helping others and creating the conditions for a more positive work experience. Focus on little things about which to be grateful. Perhaps your boss is on time to meetings, or they don’t micromanage. You can be a positive force in your relationship with your boss because you care and because you are a positive member of your community—but also because it has payoffs for you.

Manage your expectations

Keep in mind no boss will fulfill all your needs, all the time. Be sure to manage your expectations. Just like any relationship, the other person may be able to meet many of your needs, but it’s unfair to expect them to meet them all.

advertisement

Perhaps your boss is especially effective at pushing for excellence and managing tasks but isn’t so great at demonstrating empathy. Perhaps they help to support and motivate you in your career pursuits but fail to communicate with transparency. Forgive them for the areas they need improvement, but appreciate their strengths.

If you feel less than fulfilled by your manager, find ways to obtain leadership and coaching beyond your boss. Maintain a network of colleagues who can coach and encourage you. Find a mentor with whom you can meet regularly and seek guidance which your supervisor is unable to give or is beyond their responsibilities. Don’t do end-runs or play politics around your boss but do tap into other points of support. It’s appropriate that you can depend on plenty of professional relationships and that you’re not leaning on your manager to meet all your needs.

Absorb as much knowledge as possible

Ultimately, if your boss isn’t providing you needed guidance and leadership, take the opportunity to learn as much as you can. Focus on all the ways you can grow from the professional experience. Consider their behavior and make note of what worked and what didn’t, so you can emulate the best and avoid the worst when you rise to a leadership role yourself. Reflect on what pushes your buttons so you can understand yourself and manage your own emotions effectively. Even bad experiences—and sometimes especially bad experiences—can be rich opportunities for learning.

advertisement

You can influence your boss and the relationship you build with them. Do your best to drive a positive experience, but also be willing to make a change. Give it your all, but if it’s just not working out, don’t be afraid to find your next best opportunity—a place where you can make your most compelling contribution.


Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work.