Bad bosses take so many forms:

  • Micromanaging,
  • Oversharing,
  • Unrealistic demands,
  • Poor systems that make more work instead of streamlining,
  • Inadequate communication,
  • Public chastisement… the list goes on and on.

We’ve all been in a situation with a bad boss before. If you haven’t yet, I applaud you and would love to know your secret! The toll of having a bad boss — or even a difficult business partner — on your ability to produce at a high level can be tremendous. Not to mention the hassle of trying to find another job if you’ve come to the conclusion that it just isn’t worth it to stick around.

While changing jobs can be a viable option, sometimes the fact is that you’ve just got to stick it out. So how do you deal with a difficult boss so that you can be effective (and sane) doing the job they hired you to do in the first place?


Stay engaged with your boss.

What? That’s the opposite of what I want to do! I know, I know. This information comes from Mark Murphy, who completed a study called Optimal Hours with the Boss. In his research, he found that employees who spend six hours per week interacting with their direct supervisor are more inspired, engaged, and innovative. Plus, they tend to be more intrinsically motivated than their counterparts who aren’t as engaged. Read: they tend to like their jobs more, and do better work.

The obvious difficulty is that if you have a boss who is abrasive or downright rude, you don’t want to spend six hours a week interacting with them.

Fret not — there are a few tools to make your time together more tolerable.

First, learn to ask open ended questions:

“What do you think of ….?”

“How would you approach ….”

“What has your experience been with ….?”

You get the idea. Open ended questions allow you to gather information about how they’re thinking about a situation, and therefore insight about what might be worth prioritizing on your end. Also, people like people who make them feel good about themselves, and who doesn’t like to be asked for their thoughts and opinions?? The more your boss likes you, the more likely your relationship will improve.

Learn the Art of the Open-Ended Question

Second, apologize (genuinely) if you’ve made a mistake. You may have the urge to sweep your mistakes under the rug to avoid the wrong kind of attention. And, depending on the company culture, downplaying may well be the best way to survive to work another day. But more often than not, calling yourself out is a great way to build trust with your superior. Very few people are comfortable saying “I messed up. I’m sorry about that. Next time I’ll make sure to  ________.” If you’re able to do this, you’ll stop folks in their tracks and build bridges across seemingly impassable landscapes.

Third, practice empathy. Folks often get hung up with the thought they don’t care about me, why should I try to empathize with them? Well, just like being able to admit to having made a mistake, it is difficult for most people to extend kindness, empathy, and curiosity to folks they don’t particularly like. Often to the detriment of all concerned. You don’t need to play therapist, but do consider questions like “I wonder what’s going on at home for this person?” or “Hm, what pressures are they under that’s making them exert so much pressure on me?”

Fourth, keep track of your progress, and document it with your boss. Regularly. A great way to build up your relationship with your supervisor is to spend 20-30 minutes once a week touching base. “I’d like to fill you in on what I’ve been up to… I’m thinking the next steps are….” This lets your boss know that you’re engaged in your work, committed to the organization, and are taking initiative. Meanwhile, if you are looking to get a raise at some point, having built up a data bank of all the ways you’ve been stepping up and providing value will work wonders to help you build your case.

Fifth, ask for their opinion. On the heels of your weekly check-in, you might ask “I’d love to hear your opinion on x,y,z.” Everyone likes to be appreciated for their expertise and experience. You don’t need to stoop to insincere flattery. Simply pay attention to items relevant to your work and the goals of your team and periodically ask for your boss’s opinion. People like people who make them feel good about themselves, and this is a simple way to ingratiate yourself.

Finally: Think before you speak. There are times when silence and laying low are the best ways through a charged office environment. If you engage with someone in your office and things get heated, step away. You can say something like “I need to take some time to think about this. Let’s circle back next week.”

Sometimes, people simply are who they are, and no amount of strategy on your end will make the situation better. In that case, get your resume polished up or put that business plan together.

You’re better off finding a place where your gifts will be fully appreciated.

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