How to manage a difficult boss without losing your cool

Sally thought she was taking a career-altering job. Little did she know that this was true — but not in the way she had hoped.

Even on the first day, it seemed as though someone else had slipped into the body of the person who hired her. The energizing, “I-know-you-are-just-what-this-hospital-needs” boss, whose helpful guidance about navigating the traditional organizational landscape she entered had become a hyper-micromanager, criticizing and second-guessing her every decision — a steadfast annoyance pushing her to fit in with the old guard.

Sally was hired as a change agent, but it was evident the people in the nursing department did not want change and that her boss, the chief nursing officer who hired her to initiate a new day, didn’t seem to want it either.

Daily grinds of micromanaging peaked with an incident in the hallway outside of the nursing administrative offices: The boss screamed at her, saying that the nurses on Sally’s units were “sneaking around and taking advantage of overtime, and you’re not doing anything about it!” Sally still wanted the job, but she needed some way to deal with her boss. What to do?

How to get back on the right track

Just about anyone who has a planned career trajectory will encounter a difficult boss, a supervisor who is just singing off another sheet of music than you. The literature is rife with strategies for handling these troublemakers. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Scope yourself out. Take a break from everyday turmoil and examine your behaviors in your present work context. How did you get into this situation? Did you misjudge your hiring interview? Hopefully, you didn’t take a job without interviewing your potential immediate supervisor, a cardinal rule of taking a new job. Did your present boss misrepresent herself? Are you reinforcing bad-boss behaviors? For example, transactional analysis suggests that people should behave as adults in every interaction in a work environment. Do you respond to your boss’s parental behaviors by reacting like a naughty child?
  1. Analyze your boss’s behavior. What drives her? Does she know she is a difficult boss? Where is she going with her career? Does she have discernible goals? Assess your boss in terms of her interactions with other employees. Is she a consistently toxic supervisor with everyone, or just with you? If so, maybe you should try and help your boss achieve her goals (you should be doing this anyway), especially if it moves her out of her present position over you and someone more appropriate (for you) moves into it. Can you adequately assess the situation covertly from the sidelines, or should you plan a meeting with your boss to quietly explore what’s happening? If you decide to meet with your boss, arrange for an orchestrated sit-down that purports to talk about how you can do your job better. The real agenda will be for you to find out what you can do to manage the situation. You need to find out what the boss’s expectations are so that you can try to meet them. You may find that you are working for a person who is adrift in her own job situation and that you can set expectations where you want them. But this is when you decide whether you’re going to be able to last in this position or if you need to move elsewhere.
  1. Identify your special character. Difficult bosses typically characterize one of the following types, although they may, unfortunately, fit into more than one category:
  • The Parent: Managers who act like parents tend to want to do everything for their subordinates, especially their work. Sometimes with the best intention, these bosses want to be sure their employees never fail. The consequence is that their hires suffer from Developmentis Interruptus. This behavior blocks any reasonable development for you as a professional. While these folks may hand out a lot of praise to their accomplished progeny, woe be to the wayward child employees, who will be disciplined sternly for failure. The remedy is to consistently respond as an adult. Remind your boss certain responsibilities are yours and yours alone and while you appreciate the help, you need something to fill your empty days — like your job.
  • The Micromanager: Managers who micromanage have huge trust issues that block employees from accomplishing anything on their own. They really don’t think that you can do your job. And just because these managers do everything for you, don’t be lured into thinking that every task will be completed correctly. The solution here is close to that for the parent; but in this case, you need to demonstrate your competency. Unfortunately, your success may be someone else’s burden, as you might just shift your difficult boss’s preoccupation to another unfortunate employee.
  • The Utopian: These managers are visionary, hopping from one dream to the next. While projecting incredible goals for their departments and subordinates, the tedious task of realistically evaluating each one is never done, so this type of manager leaves many goals only partially realized or completely missed. They also seem to think everything is rosy, no matter how dark the environment. And because their goals are so unrealistic, they have trouble articulating them. Your goal with these superiors is to bring them down to earth and help them express their targets in achievable forms. As you begin to realize realistic goals, you will not only help yourself but also aid your boss.
  • The Victim: These managers imagine themselves the targets of every other department and sometimes even their own employees. You can find them hunkering down in their offices where they are avoiding the real world that is apparently out to get them. The way to deal with this kind of boss is to leave them alone. Obtain vital information necessary to do your job, and then just stay away. You’ll know where to find this boss, IF you need her or him to deliver an occasional organizational weather report.
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