Pro Tips | 7 Tips for Dealing with a Difficult Boss

publication date: May 24, 2023
author/source: Maryann Kerr

‘Mike the Micro-Manager’, ‘Narcissist Nancy’, ‘Ben the Bully’—we’ve all known these types of people at some point in our careers, and they’re also one of the main reasons we leave our jobs. In fact, a recent study showed that 80% of Canadian workers are simply going through the motions when it comes to working, and "Horrible Bosses" are at the top of the list for reasons why.

Working for a lousy boss sucks the joy and purpose out of work and life. They create toxic or at the very least unhappy work environments. There are some simple tips that may help, but ultimately, you need to determine if this is the environment for you and your health. Consider this:

1. Gain perspective and don’t take it personally: Try to understand your boss’s motivation or underlying drivers. Sometimes a boss is wholly unaware of the impact of their command and control approach. Combined with micro-management and bullying, the environment can be toxic. That said, she may truly believe she is a great leader. Recognizing this allows you to realize it’s not about you. It’s not personal. Understanding this can help shift the way in which you work to accommodate your boss’s style.

2. Look for the things your boss does well: Your boss may be a poor manager and limited in their ability to gather the wisdom in the room, but do they have some killer skills in other areas? There’s a reason this person made it to the top of the organization. Focus on this. Is she an incredible public speaker? Does he rock a media interview? Can she brilliantly facilitate or participate in a panel discussion? Is he a subject matter expert? While your boss may not be willing to be vulnerable or open to learning—or even believe there is anything more to learn— he/she has something going for them. Focus on that!

3. Call a friend, find a mentor: Sometimes a friend or mentor can help you take a 30,000-foot view to work through the challenges presented by a lousy boss. When you describe the situation to someone fully external to your organization, you must provide context. When you provide context, it helps you work through what got you to this point. You will find yourself reaching back and telling a story that will give you clarity and help you determine the right next step for you.

4. Ask HR for help: Depending upon the issue you are managing with your boss, a great HR/Talent/Culture department can help. In many countries you have workplace protection under the law, and it is the responsibility of your HR team to make sure you have a safe and healthy workplace.

5. Head down, carry on: In spite of everything that’s going on with you and your’ve got a job to do. Get it done. Don’t let this distract you to the point of poor performance. At the end of the day, your performance matters. If your relationship with your boss is getting in the way of performance, it will eventually end badly so pay heed to point number six...

6. Keep your options open, your resume up to date and your LinkedIn profile active! This is the opposite of point five. The truth is, to truly thrive in a workplace everything comes down to relationships. If your relationship with the boss is anything but supportive, collegial and productive – chances are you will either be moved along or choose to change jobs. Annie Dillard said that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Simple advice and worth consideration.

7. Keep a journal: The journal is not about legal action although in some cases it may become about this. The journal helps you maintain your own peace of mind amidst the chaos. If things should go bad, you can return to your notes and use them to remind you about what you survived. It can also help you to learn from the experience and determine what you might do differently next time.

Maryann Kerr is Chief Happiness Officer/CEO and principal consultant with the Medalist Group. She is a true believer that the health and well-being of our workplace is directly correlated with the health and well-being of our employees. With over 30 years in the philanthropic sector, Maryann has served multi-faceted local, provincial and national organizations in executive leadership as well as senior philanthropic positions. 

The Medalist Group is a boutique organizational development and philanthropic firm founded in 2006 by Maryann Kerr, with a goal to co-create well-led, collaborative, inclusive workplaces where productivity/mission delivery and employee engagement is high, and turnover is low. The Medalist Group believes social change won’t happen unless sustainable movements and organizations exist to encourage and develop a healthier workplace for a healthier you.

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