Tactics for Dealing with 7 Difficult Boss Types
I've heard so many horror stories over the years about "terrible boss" experiences. Whether it's a manager that takes credit (and never gives credit where credit is due), is an aggressive micromanager that gives you little creative freedom or flexibility, is angry or "glass half empty" most of the time, is unrealistic about expectations, etc. The list goes on! We spend a lot of our life at work, so what can you do in situations where you find yourself working for a "difficult boss"?
Below we break down the most common types of "bad boss" scenarios we've seen and heard about, and some tips for each of these scenarios. Will there be instances where trying some of these tactics do not work because your manager is so set in their ways or doesn't have the self-awareness to be able to see what they're doing? Of course. But in our experience, bad bosses often aren't recognizing their flaws or poor behaviors until it's tactfully and calmly addressed with them! They may have never received management/leadership training, had experience working under a good manager themselves, had a quality mentor, or received honest and specific feedback on their performance. Hopefully implementing some of these tactics will make your work life more productive and enjoyable if you find yourself working for, or working with, one of these 7 boss types!
1 - The Micromanager
This is one of the most common types of managers out there and they manage with excessive supervision or dictate your responsibilities and approach down to the micro-level. In our experience, micromanagers often have trust issues or fear of failure issues of some sort which in turn causes them to overcompensate on the management front! Others struggle to delegate or have worked under micromanagers themselves, and so that's all they've ever known.
The first thing you can do in a micromanager scenario is to build trust, slowly but surely. Be reliable and follow through on your commitments! Give regular, non-prompted updates so they know you are on top of your tasks. Showing your commitment and follow-through to deadlines will hopefully create an opportunity for you to candidly discuss with your boss that you prefer a more hands-off approach. It's important for you to learn and grow as a professional, but you value their input when, and if, it is needed. Direct communication around your preferred work approach, and expressing tactfully that you'd like more freedom in how you do things, is a vital step here. Bring a couple examples of different solutions or ways of doing things to your 1 on 1s and other catch-ups.
2 - The Credit Taker and/or the Never Praiser
We've seen instances when these traits exist in the same person, and other instances where the manager may have one but not the other. For example, you may have a manager that takes credit for your/team's work, and then praises individually in private. This can be very frustrating when you're never getting recognized in front of your peers, key stakeholders, leadership, clients, etc. So, what do you do if credit isn't being given where credit is due? Personally, I do think part of an employee's role is making their boss look good, but after going above and beyond time and time again, it is quite frustrating when a boss takes credit and a simple "thank you" or "great job" is never received, or is never received publicly. I'm a big proponent of leading by example, so if you and your team are not getting well deserved props from your boss, start being more of a subtle cheerleader publicly and speaking up to your boss on what else they could be doing to both better recognize and motivate the team! Don't shy away from sharing how proud you are of your co-workers, milestones, etc. through verbal recognition, send out props emails congratulating people on their efforts, and speaking up in meetings.
Hopefully your boss will realize the positive effects of giving praise and credit. And if they don't? Maybe it's time for a heart to heart that includes specific examples of both how people are feeling and suggestions around better recognition. Also do research around the impact recognition/praise has on employee motivation, productivity and retention, and be ready to share a statistic or two that drives your point home. Let them know if you feel defeated when you work so hard on a project, and they take the credit for it or don't say thank you. But as mentioned before, bosses often don't know what they're doing wrong. Of course, they want to look good to their boss, which they might think means taking credit for every good idea. Erica worked for a Manager who on multiple occasions didn't give credit to the people who actually got the work done. On one leadership call, the Manager reviewed the results of that team's efforts for the year before. Despite that report and highlights being put together by two individuals on behalf of their team, neither those two nor the team as a whole was mentioned. A few days later, Erica addressed directly, and shared that "one piece of crucial information that was missing during that debrief was directly acknowledging the team as a whole and the names of those two individuals. They did considerable work putting that together. Why weren't they recognized?" This resulted in a really great conversation and the expectation that going forward, the people who are in the trenches getting things done would be personally called out! Like many of these instances, there wasn't bad intent from the Manager, they just simply didn't recognize the importance of it until it was called out.
3 - The Angry Boss
Do you have, or have you ever had, a manager that gets angry and/or yells? Erica had a Manager early in her career who let their anger and frustrations show, and took that one step further unprofessionally by using language that should never be used, much less in the workplace. The first experience she had was on the receiving end, where several of the worst curse words were directed at her. She was in shock and couldn't even respond except a stammered apology. The second time it happened was a few weeks later. This time Erica was furious, and thus she reacted and responded to it. Despite being 14 years ago, Erica remembers the experience pretty vividly. She addressed the comments head on, kept her voice pretty level and even-keeled. Erica responded with "your language and tone is really offensive, and I don't believe anyone should be spoken to in this way. This situation wasn't my fault, and even if and when I make a mistake, I will never appreciate being spoken to like this." She then said something along the lines of "we can discuss this situation later when you have calmed down and can speak to me more professionally and productively." A couple hours later, something unexpected happened. Erica received a long and sincere apology via email. Even though that individual wasn't with the organization much longer, their conversations thereafter remained civil and professional.
Looking back, what did Erica do? First, she called out the bad behavior directly. Second, she didn't match her Manager's tone and anger. Third, Erica ended the conversation to give them time to diffuse and reflect. In her situation, these things resulted in a positive outcome. Change occurred. While this will never be the result 100% of the time, Erica's personal experiences dealing with really angry employees, customers or Managers yields this result much more often than not.
4 - The Unrealistic Boss
Have you ever experienced a moment of anxiety after leaving a meeting with your Manager around what they've just requested? Many Managers have never "walked in the shoes" of their employees, or haven't walked in them in a while. A result of this, i.e. not having done their responsibilities personally, can sometimes be asking for the impossible by setting unrealistic expectations. We've both had several moments like this throughout our careers. In one particular instance, the success of a new initiative resulted in Erica's Manager asking her to replicate that program in 12 other areas. She had a slight panic attached about this knowing that one program took about 15 hours a month. Successfully replicating it would be enough to warrant half of someone's full job description. After taking some time to process their request and think through her response, Erica re-visited the topic her our next 1 on 1. She shared how happy she was with their positive reaction to the program and desire to do more, but said it wasn't a feasible request given current bandwidth, and then broke down the total time per program and where time was spent. Her manager immediately recognized that it was indeed not feasible and apologized for not realizing everything that went into the program, and never made that request again.
When dealing with unrealistic requests, what have we learned? First, always go the mentality of "assume positive intent" and in this instance, the Manager wasn't intending to add such a workload. Second, remember that they are looking at most "asks" from a macro high-level and aren't thinking through all the micro-level tasks that go into making it happen. Third, try not to freak out in the moment and instead think through your response. Fourth, try and identify a compromise or alternate solution/offer.
5 - The "MIA Manager"
We've heard stories of individuals that talked to their boss on day 1 and then didn't hear from them for months. Months! That doesn't seem right does it? The reality is that anyone managing a large # of people may neglect (without really understanding the impact) people they perceive as self-sufficient. Most people don't want a micromanager, but they also don't want to go months without talking to their boss, getting feedback on their performance, and building some kind of rapport. So, what do you do if you haven't heard from your boss in a while? Be proactive, reach out, and ask to put 30 minutes on their calendar. Let them know that feedback is important to you and what is fair cadence that you both can commit to? Additionally, why haven't they reached out? Are there certain tasks or initiatives that you or other co-workers could take on to alleviate some of your boss's time? That may be a win-win for all.
6 - The Non-Confrontational
Most people I know, including myself, crave some type of performance feedback. I don't need a pat on the back every day, or even every week/month, but I do appreciate feedback when large milestones or projects have been completed. I also crave constructive feedback. Could I have interacted with that stakeholder differently? Did my message resonate? What feedback is my boss receiving from the field/customers about me? Fortunately, I work for someone that understands the importance of a continuous feedback cycle and is always there to coach and mentor me.
Do you work for someone that only gives you feedback during your annual performance review? Or, someone who only gives you positive feedback with no suggestions for improvement or taking your role/skills to the next level? That doesn't, and shouldn't, cut it. If this sounds like your manager, do you know why they avoid conflict or difficult conversations? For a lot of managers I've known, this anxiety and avoidance arises from the fact that they've never been in a leadership / management position before! Or, they worked for someone that had a hands-off approach and views that as the best option. Or perhaps they dread receiving constructive feedback themselves and think most others are the same way. Ultimately, it's important to let your boss know, if this applies to you, that you wish to have a regular, productive meeting to discuss performance feedback, which also includes the top one to two opportunities they see where you can take your performance and contributions to the next level. Not only can you relay how important feedback is for you, but it's also a great opportunity to bring up the fact that you want to be on the same page moving forward. Are there upcoming initiatives or goals within your team/organization? Are there opportunities for you to expand your skillset? If your boss doesn't know that you're really passionate about a certain technology/skill/activity, how would they know to recommend you?
8 - The People Pleaser or the Yes Boss
Working for a "nice" manager, or a "yes" boss (where they agree enthusiastically to every request) may seem great at first. But ultimately, if they turn out to be someone that puts their need of being liked or someone who will take on any unrealistic request above anything else, problems will arise. If they are someone that will never say no to "upper management," that can and will pose issues eventually, when they inevitably agree to something that isn't feasible for themselves or their team. One of the toughest parts of working for a People Pleaser is that they may tell everyone on the team that things are great and everyone is doing a great job when in reality, that might not be the case. Almost every team has members that are underperforming, those doing their job well, and those going above and beyond. Now for those underperformers, it may be because of lack of training, coaching and feedback. Or it could be the case that they are a bad seed. And as we all know, the longer we let bad seeds impact our teams, the worse it becomes. Not addressing those issues will only have long-term negative impacts.
Advice here is similar to the above, especially the Non-Confrontational Manager. When you approach your boss, you need to be direct and provide relevant examples. You also need to have a well thought-out response for why a request isn't feasible, or why the "elephant in the room" needs to be addressed.
Working for a difficult boss is not only frustrating and disheartening, but it can cause an impact on your work, your other relationships, your brand, and can even take a toll on aspects of your personal life. Here are our key recommendations for approaching concerns/issues with your boss:
- Don't react the wrong way in the moment, which will likely only result in a heated conversation that can have a short and long-term negative impact on your relationship.
- Adopt and maintain the "assume positive intent" mentality, and go into it with the mindset that their negative actions/behavior/requests, or lack thereof, weren't intentional.
- Figure out the root of your boss's behavior.
- Identify examples to share.
- Have a heart to heart with them. Don't be surprised if they are combative. This may be the first time someone has been honest with them about their leadership and management style!
If you are interested in more recommendations on this topic, we love these resources:
- Crucial Conversations
- Great, all-encompassing article with additional resources recommended
- One of my favorite leadership books (I've read it three times!). A good portion of this book discusses how to best interact with difficult leaders.
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Article Last Updated: 2021-03-19