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Dana WilsonIt’s hard to find someone who hasn’t had a problem with a boss at some point in his or her career. The higher you go on the corporate power ladder and the more you earn, the more complicated the boss-employee relationship becomes.

But no matter how desperate and unhappy you are, you’d be making a big mistake if you followed Johnny Paycheck’s lead and told your boss to “take this job and shove it.” It’s good advice if you want to get fired, but if you want to keep your job and make peace with the situation, there are better tactics, some or all of which might work under the right conditions.

Consider the following four strategies:

1. Tune out your boss. This is the backbone of a strategy touted by Lyle Sussman, author of What To Say To Get What You Want. Sussman says tuning out your boss involves focusing only on your work. In order to see results from this strategy, you have to be able to do the following:

  • Put personalities aside
  • Turn your boss into an irrelevant issue
  • Focus on what you are being paid to do

Easier said that done. Sussman admits that this solution is great in theory yet works best in two situations. First, you must be strong-minded and able to block out interference; and second, your boss has to allow you to concentrate on your work.

2. Change yourself. If you can’t tune out your boss, why not modify your behaviour so you can work more harmoniously with this person? This is a mature solution based on the realization that you might be partly responsible for the problem.

It sounds great, yet most of us have no idea how difficult it is to change ourselves. Others don’t believe they have to change. They’re content with themselves just the way they are. But if you’re up for the game, the process of changing yourself can be an eye-opening experience.

Start by finding out what areas need to be changed. There are two obvious information sources for advice: yourself and co-workers.

  • Yourself. While this is less than an objective source, it is a good place to start.
  • Co-workers. They can be the best source of objective information. Be prepared for brutal honesty. You might not like what you’re going to hear. No matter how smart and enlightened you think you are, no one likes listening to bad news.

Once you’ve gotten the true poop, you might decide it’s not worth it to change. It could require too much work, and you might deem it an unbeatable battle.

By the same token, you may be surprised to learn that the situation is not half as bad as you thought it was. The problem may be little things, such as becoming more organized, and spending extra time on bookkeeping chores.

3. Manage your boss. This popular term is known as “upward management.” “Downward management” is what bosses do to their subordinates. But no one says you can’t manage the relationship upward and achieve remarkable results. The nucleus of upward management involves understanding your boss’s world. But the burden is on you. It’s not about trying to change your boss by confronting him; it’s about accepting this person the way he or she is, and finding out what has to be done to improve the relationship.

Most of your information will come from stepping back and emotionally disengaging yourself from the situation.

Beyond observing, ask questions. Speak to people whom you think you can trust. The best information source is former employees, if you can find them. Since they’re out of the fray, they’re likely to provide interesting revelations.

Once you’ve done your homework, the big question is: What have you learned about your boss?

4. Have a heart-to-heart. Warning. This is a dangerous, last-ditch effort that could backfire if handled badly. The reason for a one-on-one confrontation is to present your problems so you and your boss can find a way to mend wrongs and improve the quality of the working relationship. It’s a simple concept, yet it is difficult to execute.

Before seriously contemplating this strategy, ask yourself: “Is my boss approachable?” No matter how noble your intentions, don’t expect to change a demented despot.

In short, success in this kind of one-on-one encounter rests on your ability to read another human being. The big question is, Can your boss listen to what you have to say and critically evaluate its merit? If the answer is “yes,” go for it. Lots of luck. You’ll need it.

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.

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