What to do when the boss is the problem

Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to deal with a truly difficult boss is to seek a change of employment

Some bosses are gems and others … not so much. While every person’s personality can, on occasion, clash with another’s, some supervisors seem to make a habit of making life miserable for the rest of us. But what can you do when the person in control of a large portion of your life (and your paycheque) is unreasonable, illogical, or just plain mean? Here are some examples of bosses you may have had the misfortune to meet in your career.

The Teflon Terror

This middle manager is not going anywhere. At the top of their career, these hangers-on just don’t want to rock the boat. Getting along is what they do best as they crank out the same old routine year after year. They know what happens to poppies that grow too tall, so they keep a low profile. They like you to keep a low profile as well. They don’t want the person who does most of the work stolen away by another executive. They dodge accountability by giving ambiguous instructions. If you ask them which Vice President’s project you should finish first, they might reply, “All of them.” Pressed for a little more advice, they might add, “Don’t screw up.” And when you finish those projects, he or she will grab them and deliver them to the executives personally, keeping you under the radar.

It’s hard to let your light shine when someone is sitting on the basket. Make sure you network with other executives in informal settings like the lunchroom, hallway, or, even the restroom sink. Ask if they found the last report to their liking or if there is anything different they would like to see. They might not even be aware that you are the one doing the actual work. Whatever you do, don’t put down your supervisor or try and bypass his or her authority. That’s asking for big-time trouble. Instead, demonstrate your competence and show your curiosity for other areas of the business. Find a way to communicate your capabilities without seeming overeager or egotistical. Doing good work and subtly marketing yourself will go a long way.

The Hatchet

If your organization is running into trouble, you may meet these types. It seems that their main goal in life is making subordinates so miserable that they will resign, saving the company money in severance and benefits. You can do nothing right for these people. Someone is always “going on probation,” and they “have their eye on you!” Look out when dealing with these individuals, because your words can be twisted and nothing you do will seem to be done right.

These managers can tie your stomach in knots. Despite your best efforts to continue to do your job, it will be twice as difficult with The Hatchet second-guessing your every move. Try to get instructions in writing, since they will deny verbal transactions. Keep every email and written note. Call on your HR department for arbitration, and prepare for it like a lawyer. Avoid hearsay and gossip and only present what you can prove. Beyond HR, look for air cover. You need a sponsor here, at your boss’ level or higher. If you’ve done a good job and you are of value in the organization, you should have relationships with well-respected leaders. Seek out their advice, again making sure not to denigrate your own boss. If you can tactfully ask for help, you may be surprised that it is available.

Attila the Power Monger

Some leaders are rough around the edges; others can be downright razor sharp. Individuals who have come up “through the ranks” can sometimes bring their factory-floor, loading-dock or shop-management style into the office setting. While yelling and pounding on the desk will certainly get a subordinate’s attention; it’s debatable if they are effective motivational tools. Power Mongers need to control you, want you to suck up, have huge egos, and never share credit. They earned their authority the hard way and don’t want to hear about new ways to approach an issue. Their world is pretty much black and white. Anything they do not agree with is “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” A disconcerting aspect of the Power Monger is that they often display a charming side. They are known to occasionally give genuine praise or offer quiet helpful hints on how to handle a challenge. Unfortunately, they usually like to turn around the old management rule and “praise in private and criticize in public.”

Subtly play into the Power Monger’s needs by complimenting the leader where appropriate (instead of attempting to challenge their authority, which won’t work). Normalize the behaviour. Does the boss treat everyone the same way? If not, there may be some work-related issues to resolve. Establish clarity around priorities, check-in rhythms, and alignment around opportunities to share your good work to a broader audience as a development experience. Your supervisor may also be testing you, to “see what you’re made of.” If everyone comes in for the same rough treatment, you are probably okay (except for your stress levels). Power Mongers can be exceptionally smart, and if you know what you’re doing, appreciate the job you do for them. They can be fiercely loyal, and even protective, of anyone who has earned their trust.

Normally, when dealing with executives who rank above you, diplomacy is key. Most people are logical and talking through differences in style or expectations may bring resolution. When supervisors are unreasonable, try to work within the system to break through the behavioural problems or move up and out of their area of control. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to deal with a truly difficult boss is to seek a change of employment.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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