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'It was adapt or die': How to manage a difficult boss - and still get your work done

We speak to former employees who made it out the other side of a bad boss horror show.

Image: Unsplash

“MY OLD BOSS would throw you under the bus if a decision she made didn’t pan out well.”

Natasha’s* experience of a year-long role in financial services is clouded by memories of her troublesome manager, who was constantly evasive and reluctant to take ownership of problems.

“She was super difficult to manage,” Natasha recalls.

It’s often said that the hardest workplace task of all is dealing with co-workers, and when the co-workers causing hassle are your superiors, things can get messy.

It’s not me, it’s you

“Some bosses think that being the boss means they have to manage ‘how’ people do their work,” says Laura Handrick, a HR writer for NYC-based small business company Fit Small Business

A poor boss is one who tells people what to do and how to do it, treating people as if they have no brain.

Matthew*, a communications executive, recalls the exhaustion of dealing with constant “micro-agressions” from his direct superior.

headway-537308-unsplash Source: Unsplash

“He did everything from clicking at me to giving out workloads that just weren’t manageable. I felt he also took advantage of my newness within the company,” says Matthew.

Tricky management situations are more common that you’d think, and often it stems from a lack of management training or bad hiring decisions, says career coach Jane Downes.

Problems arise when managers are not on the top of their game. It’s a nightmare for companies.

In Downes’ experience, some people see a promotion into a management roles as a chance to relax and let their guard down. “This is why leadership training is so important,” she adds.

In Matthew’s case, he noticed the problems after about a month, but wasn’t sure where to turn, or who to turn to.

“I saw that my co-workers were incredibly stressed out, and [the management’s] attitude towards me changed after about three months in,” he recalls.

There was no reporting structure or feedback the position. Plus, a lack of guidance that meant that more junior employees had no way to learn.

The wonders of managing up

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So how do you proceed if you can’t simply call up HR? It’s worth noting your boss’s bad behaviour, first and foremost, what makes them tick, and what their motivations might be.

“All bosses have weaknesses and flaws,” says Downes. “The key to managing that is gaining insight. What is your boss’s motivation?”

For Natasha, figuring out when her boss was most likely to flare up meant she could prepare, and proactively manage the situation to her own benefit.

It was really important to hold my manager accountable. For example, I would often send a ‘recap’ email of what we discussed and frame it as ‘I just want to be sure that I have all this right’. Really it was a paper trail showing her agreement with whatever decisions had been made.

This practice of analysing and adapting is often known as “managing up” – working to mutually benefit yourself and your boss

“Managing up is emotional intelligence in action and we should all be practicing it in our working lives, regardless of our situation,” says Downes.

In Natasha’s experience, it’s a strategy that worked – and one that other colleagues began to take notice of:

My boss realised that if she said something to me, I would hold her to it. A few other people in the office adopted this approach too, and it kind of made the team more organized as a whole.

What else can I try?

nick-morrison-325805-unsplash Source: Unsplash

If some self-led proactivity hasn’t woken your boss up yet, there are some other routes you can take, starting by taking as many notes as you can.

Experts recommend keeping a written record of two things: the tasks you’re asked to perform, and any hard-to-handle moments with your manager.

The purpose of note-keeping is twofold: it’ll help you to spot patterns in behaviour (your manager’s and your own), and it’ll be useful if you decide to take the issue to a higher-up.

If your company does have a HR department, this should definitely be your next port of call, though the options option to you will likely vary depending on the size of the company you work for and its employee ethos.

It’s also important to remember that while a HR manager can offer support and even mediation, they can’t magically make your boss better at what they do.

Matthew’s company was small, which meant no HR department, and he soon realised that if he didn’t make some changes himself, things were going to get messy.

It was frustrating knowing that there was nothing I could do officially to help the situation. In the end, it was adapt or die.

Matthew coped by “finding workarounds and assuming his own seniority” within the company, delegating tasks to himself and others whenever necessary.

And finally… know when it’s time to move on

Ultimately, it’s worth weighing up how much time is spent on managing your boss versus doing your job. If it’s become an issue that’s affecting your work-life balance, your performance, or your mental health, it might be time to say goodbye.

Jane agrees that sometimes, the only option is to pack up and go:

New bosses like to test resilience, but if it’s affecting your mental wellbeing you need to look seriously at it and potentially move on.

Despite Matthew’s changes, in the end he felt more comfortable seeking new employment. Even so, he acknowledges that his time with a tough manager “made him feel able to cope with anything” – and more wary of red flags in workplaces, too.

If leaving is the route you choose to take, don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Research any prospective employer thoroughly, and be aware of red flags in an interview setting – did you come away from an interview feeling confused and a little uncomfortable?

If you choose to stay, take note: the key to managing your boss is, simply, patience, tact and a little bit of nerve. Go forth with that, and (hopefully!) you’ll be on your way to a more relaxed and productive working environment.

*Names have been changed.

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