Reporting to a difficult boss is stressful and impacts your productivity. Some bosses act like bullies and demean their staff; others are more indirect and act indifferently or completely ignore team members. When the communication is really poor, knowing how to change your approach with your boss is critical to establishing boundaries and promoting the proper working relationship. Below are some tips to help you improve your relationship with a difficult boss.
- know your personal triggers
- set ground rules
- clarify job roles
- push for consensus
- agree on mutually beneficial outcomes
- go on the attack
- fall into emotional traps
- make the wrong assumptions
- meet without a plan
- forget to assess progress
Some words and non-verbal actions hit you more negatively than others. In order to communicate effectively with your boss you have to be grounded. Grounding requires you to acknowledge specific behaviors your boss does to set you off (e.g. yelling, micro-management, etc.) and learning how to control your reaction. You’ll be calmer and stay mentally focused versus emotionally wavering.
When you meet with your boss, layout the right framework for the discussion. Every meeting should consist of three to five clear objectives you want to engage your boss with. You control the message and content of the conversation around these key points. The meeting is about work and getting information or receiving answers to questions you need to complete your tasks. Your focus is not on your boss’s disruptive behavior.
Objectives outline the business needs to be completed by you and your boss. Role clarity identifies what and how each party gets tasks done. If your boss tries to have you shoulder all the work and accountability of a shared task, reframe the discussion until your boss provides specific commitment to his or her responsibilities and yours. Building mutual accountability is crucial to meeting deadlines and deliverables.
Document and verbally commit to outcomes. Determine timeframes for completion of tasks, follow-up conversation, and any other processes required to meet your stated goals. Acknowledge any blocking or defensiveness your boss may have to mutually commit to the success of the project or task. (e.g. “I understand your concern; let’s look at it this way…”). Your communication should orient your boss to feeling in control of how common needs will be driven as a partnership with you.
Always tie collaboration between you and your boss as the best and most effective way to get work done. Once you have your boss aligned to what you need in order to get your work done, stress the advantages of your plan as meeting your boss?s needs. The need may be your boss's ego more than the business, but by walking away from the discussion leaving your boss feeling in control, that risk is reduced. And your boss's help is necessary to your mutual success.
Standing up to your boss and being a hero to your coworkers is tempting but usually backfires. If your boss is a bully, standing up to him or her about dysfunctional behaviors is seen as a challenge. The same applies to aloof or distant bosses, who will only withdraw further or completely shut down when threatened. Pre-plan a measured communication approach, targeting specific needs and outcomes rather than a charged assault.
Fear of confrontation robs energy and personal power. Self-talk about how the conversation with your boss will fail, or complete avoidance of your boss ingrains disruptive behavior further. Convincing yourself through compromises in your behavior or actions jeopardizes your ability to find balance in the relationship. Visualize how you can address concerns and yield a productive outcome.
If you are angry or depressed because of your boss’s bad behavior, it’s easy to conclude that the problem lies only with the personality of your boss. You assume your boss is a sociopath, egotistic, or stupid. In many cases, the behavior is driven by immaturity in a management role, internal top-down demands, or external challenges. Seek to understand why the pattern of behavior exists in order to uncover clues for how you can help your boss. By stepping back and looking at the work environment holistically, your ability to communicate with your boss can improve. If you act only on your bias and assumptions, the result will be lower job satisfaction and feelings of disengagement.
Practice your approach before meeting with your boss. Identify a short list of goals and rehearse your pitch. Imagine selling a product to a client who doesn’t know you. You follow steps that provide highlights, a summary and a call to action. The same is true if your boss is difficult to talk to, doesn’t have time, or tries to do all the talking. A plan of action grounds your thinking towards clear objectives. This showcases your position and maintains your power in the conversation.
Changing the relationship with a difficult boss takes time and patience. Baby steps are required to move forward and you might have to try different tactics to get your boss into the right conversation with you that is not obstructive, offensive, or ineffectual. Set personal follow-up markers at the completion of project milestones, after addressing emergency business issues that pop up, at times congruent with performance review activities. Maintain the approach that is working and adapt your communication process to changing conditions as needed.
You can reduce the struggles you have working for a difficult boss by developing the right communication process. Whether you’ve just started noticing problematic behavior from your boss or it’s a long-term issue, by modifying how you think and react to your boss, creating specific targets around roles and agreements, and seeking mutually beneficial outcomes, you can transform the way in which you interact with your boss and significantly improve your working environment.