How to deal with a difficult boss 

Don’t start searching the job boards until you’ve tried these ways to manage your manager. 
by Courtney L. Vien 
Published December 16, 2014

How to deal with a difficult bossLet’s face it, every manager can’t be perfect. Chances are, at some point in your career, you’ll have to deal with a challenging boss.

Difficult bosses come in many forms: micromanagers who won’t let you make any decisions; procrastinators who take forever to give feedback; autocrats who demand that everything be done their way; and workaholics who expect a timely reply to emails they send you at 2 A.M. … on a Saturday. But they all have one thing in common: They can make an otherwise great job a nightmare.

So, if you’re stuck with a boss who frustrates you, what can you do—aside from polish your résumé?

First, take a step back from the situation and define what, exactly, your boss does that’s causing you headaches. “Focus on the behavior, not the person,” advises independent recruiter Beth Berk, CPA, CGMA. When you depersonalize the situation and pinpoint the specific problems involved, you can then take concrete steps to solve them.

You may need to adapt the way you work to accommodate your boss, Berk said. If your boss procrastinates, for instance, plan to take extra time on projects where you’ll need her input. If she prefers communicating online rather than face to face, send her an IM or an email rather than scheduling a meeting.

Don’t be afraid to speak up

Another tactic is to let your boss know—with great tact, naturally—that something he does is causing you difficulty. If you find that prospect daunting, executive coach and career strategist Michele Woodward, author of the webinar “Bullies, Jerks, and Other Annoyances: Identify and Defuse the Difficult People in the Workplace,” suggests looking at it in a different light.

“You’d tell your boss if he had spinach in his teeth just before he was about to go on the Today Show,” she said. “Telling him about a mistake he’s made is a similar situation. In both cases, you’re trying to help him look better and avoid embarrassment.”

“You’d be surprised how often bosses are relieved when someone points out a problem,” Woodward added. In fact, not speaking up, she said, can be worse than openly addressing a problem, because it can cause resentment to build.

When approaching your boss about such a problem, Woodward said, be specific and mention ways correcting the problem will help you do your job better. “If you feel like you’re being left out of important meetings, for instance, you could tell him that you’d have an easier time writing your reports if you were invited to certain meetings,” she said.

Is your boss difficult—or just different?

Consider the possibility that your boss may not really be difficult, but may simply have a different work style or temperament than your own. If you’re a Type A person, for instance, you might not mesh well with a laid-back boss, or vice versa. If you’re sensitive, you might be offended by criticism your tough-minded boss views as straightforward and honest.

To gain more insight into how your temperament may affect your interactions with co-workers, Berk suggests taking a personality test such as Myers-Briggs or the Predictive Index.

When your boss won’t change

Sometimes you’re not able to fix the relationship with your boss no matter what you do. When that happens, Woodward suggests finding a mentor at your firm. “That way,” she said, “you know there’s always someone in the company who will stand up for you and be willing to give you feedback.”

Whatever you do, Woodward said, resist the temptation to complain about the boss to co-workers. “It’s human nature to want to vent to someone else,” she said, “but doing so can ratchet up your stress level, and it can hurt your career.” If co-workers don’t share your opinion, they may lose respect for you; worse, they may wonder what you’re saying about them behind their backs. And if your comments get back to the boss, you could permanently sour your working relationship with him or her.

Instead, Woodward said, choose one person outside of your office who you know you can trust and use him or her as a sounding board, making sure that everything you say is kept in strict confidence.

Woodward also advises having a fulfilling life outside of your job. “Having something outside work that’s a source of pride can help defuse tensions in the workplace,” she said.

If you do decide that the only solution is to find another job, be sure it’s a good fit so similar problems don’t follow you to the next phase of your career. “Know yourself before you move on,” said Berk.

Courtney L. Vien is an associate editor at the AICPA.

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