Bosses. We’ve all had them.  Some are good while some, unfortunately, are not so great.  We all yearn for a boss who will be supportive, encouraging and instructive, but realistically, the exceptional ones are few and far between.  Recently, I did a little exercise, and wrote out the names of all the persons to whom I reported over the course of my career.    I graded them from “A” (Exceptional) to “F” (Disastrous).  Out of the thirty people to whom I reported over my career, one was an A, about 4 were B’s, a couple were C’s, a number were D’s and E’s, and about 8 were F’s.

So, what do you do when you wish for an A level supervisor but instead, you’re stuck with a D, E or F calibre individual?  How do you make the relationship work?

There are, I submit, three overriding considerations which should govern any discussion on handling a difficult boss.

1.  No Common Denominator

Bosses come in all shapes, sizes and styles.  They are all unique, and no two individuals are the same.  While there are common traits and qualities exhibited by great leaders it is unrealistic to expect that every boss will exhibit these same traits and qualities to the same degree.  Recognizing this simple fact is the most important step in moving forward.  By the same token, the traits one individual regards as valuable in a boss may not be the same priority for another.

2.  You can’t change basic human behaviour

You can’t will someone to change their basic personality any more than you can change the weather.  Psychologists tell us that personality is essentially fixed by the time a person is seventeen.  Recognizing this means that to some extent you will have to compromise or, at the very least, identify what you can and cannot abide in your boss.

3.  Identifying the root cause is key

If you are confronted with a boss who, you feel, is unsupportive, disinterested or an obstacle, the first thing is to identify the major cause or issue.  This requires a combination and analysis.

Here are some common questions you should be asking:

  • Is your disagreement based on work issues (e.g. priorities, philosophical differences, etc.), or is it based on personality factors?
  • How long has this behaviour or situation been exhibited?
  • How does this behaviour or situation manifest itself?
  • In your opinion, how important is it that he/she change his/her behaviour?
  • Does he/she behave differently towards you in comparison to other employees?
  • Under what circumstances is this behaviour most acute?
  • Have others recognized a similar problem, or is it just you?

An Approach

So, let’s say you have accepted that your boss is human, that you can’t change his/her personality, and you’ve analyzed the situation to determine when, where and how their behaviour is problematic.  How do you handle this moving forward?

Here are some practical tips:

  • Get a bead on their personality.  In order to understand your boss you really need to get a good handle on their management style, personality and preferences.

In an ideal situation, you could perhaps give them a psychometric assessment such as a Myers-Briggs profile to complete which would provide some insights.  Realistically though, the likelihood of this happening is slim.  However, you can still use these tools to “guesstimate” their personality and style, and then research techniques on how best to handle them.  Adapting your style to theirs will take time and patience, but it can be helpful in identifying their needs and motivations.

One simple method is simply to ask them how they would describe themselves.  Once armed with this information it will help you in comprehending their style and preferences.

  • Apply foresight.  Anticipate the conditions and circumstances under which he/she will be problematic.  Understand the triggers that will cause anger, friction or upset.

First thing is to record all previous questions, and ensure you have answers to these at your disposal.  Second, if there are things your boss dislikes about the formatting of the report then use that feedback to revise the report format.  Third, if they keep asking for additional information that is not contained in the report you might consider having this information as a supplementary narrative.

Say, for instance, that it is your responsibility to prepare a monthly sales report, and your boss, based upon past experience, scrutinizes it in exacting detail.  After submitting it he/she comes back to you with a number of questions, and is testy in their feedback.  Going forward how do you handle this?

  • Get confirmation on what was said.  If your boss provides direction verbally, but then alleges that you did not follow his/her instructions, there are two ways of counteracting this problem.  One is to paraphrase back to them their request to confirm understanding.  The second is to send an e-mail summarizing your understanding of their request.
  • Don’t complain.  Even if your boss is a loud-mouth boor do not complain.  Complaining is seen as a mark of insubordination and disrespect, and any comments or feedback made either in haste or in jest could damage your reputation and come back to haunt you later.
  • Be proactive.  Bosses generally appreciate employees who take initiative and show concern for their priorities.  They also value employees who can make their work easier, and who generate not just problems also solutions.   Proposals that eliminate duplication, expedite delivery, reduce costs, or improve productivity, will be welcomed, especially when they are well-researched and formulated.
  • Empathize and show consideration.  As we established earlier, bosses are human.  They have good days, and they have bad days.  Being sensitive to their pressures, whether personal, work or health-related, will forge bonds of loyalty and support.  One important thing to keep in mind is that bosses operate with a broader frame of reference than regular employees.  There are often things going on that you may not be privy to, and this additional information could be what is causing them personal angst.  Remember that a kind word, a compliment, or a supportive act of kindness is appreciated as much by a boss as an employee.

Once bitten, twice shy

Looking back over my list of good and bad supervisors one thing I noted was that the better supervisors all possessed three noteworthy characteristics I rate highly in any manager.  One was that they were great communicators, and had a genuine willingness to share information.  The second was that they were all good mentors, and possessed a sincere interest in sharing and teaching.  The third was that they were empathetic and caring.

If I had been sufficiently astute earlier in my career I would have used this information to my advantage and passed on at least two career opportunities.  Never make the same mistake twice.

A Final Thought

I read somewhere that the key to managing your boss is to manage them.  I’m not sure if that is true but one thing I do believe is that often the circumstances in which we work governs the way we interact and behave with others.  Change the structure, the method of interaction or the framework in which regular interactions occur and you can frequently impact the responses and mollify some of the negative behaviours that are generated.