Managing Difficult Bosses: Feature Article; Jun'07

In the book ‘First break all the rules’ the authors propound that employees do not leave their companies, but leave their bosses. It got me thinking. What if the boss is alright and the individual had not managed his/her boss effectively? I know what you are thinking….shouldn’t our bosses be managing us? Why do we need to manage our bosses?

Common sense tell us that parents manage their children. But ask any parent and he/she will tell you how his/her child manages him/her. And why does the child do that. To simply get his/her way!  Applying that logic we can say that we need to manage our bosses to get what we want from our work. Bosses can guide us, offer meaningful feedback, connect us with the rest of the organization, provide necessary organizational resources and motivate us to do better.

How do we manage difficult bosses?
While thankfully most bosses are not difficult (I guess that is why they are bosses!) there are some who are difficult and need to be managed accordingly.

The Indecisive - They are vague and flit between decisions. Figure out what triggers their indecisiveness. Is it avoidance of conflict or risk? Provide them the confidence that you will be able to manage the conflict or risk.  If you do not want procrastination, give them a hand by stating past problems encountered because a decision was not made Summarize the options considered and your criteria for selecting one option. Be clear what you expect from them. Do you want to simply inform, to decide jointly, to share the risk, to add one criterion or to re-examine the option.

The Control Freak - These managers micromanage everything not allowing you to think or function for yourself. Fear of failure or lack of confidence in you usually makes them want to control every little task. If you can reassure them that you are taking adequate steps to address risks and provide them as many details as possible, you can work well with them. Successfully executing a few projects will also automatically improve their confidence in your abilities.

The Absent One - This manager could be traveling across the globe or just has too many things on his/her plate. The trick is to squeeze yourself into his/her schedule. And once you do get face time with him/her make the most of it by preparing thoroughly beforehand. Summing up options and what decisions he/she needs to make, or direction they need to give makes it easy for them to deal with more in less time.  

The Politically Savvy - These bosses do not want to ruffle any feathers especially those belonging to the top management and are very conscious of what is politically right and wrong. They can be easily managed by helping them look good in front of their seniors. But it is important to watch your back.  Get written support for anything risky or controversial to avoid being a potential scapegoat.

The Whip-Cracker - The whip-cracker drives you hard. Ever watchful, he seems to know about every mistake that you commit or even the ones you are about to commit. He works very hard and does not seem to have life outside work. Unfortunately he expects you to work also the same way. If it is not a temporary phenomenon on account of a looming deadline, you need to reconcile to it. On the bright side you get to reap the rewards of hard work.

The Bully - Very rarely you could have a bully for a boss, one who is nasty and makes you miserable. But before you shout “Help!” look around. Is your manager singling you out? If you are the only one, maybe your working styles clash. Consider changing your style to match your boss’. If he is doing it to everybody then at least you know it’s not personal. Report it to your superior or an HR representative.

The Non Appreciative - You have worked hard and according to you, you have produced the best report possible. And there is no “Good show!” statement from your boss. If your boss is generally the type who never appreciates anybody then your best bet would be to ask him directly for feedback on your work and if you really did a good job he will have to admit it. Alternately you can ask for feedback from supportive teammates. But if he/she does appreciate occasionally then you know you only need to do better to receive that rare compliment.

The Inexperienced - Being a boss can be tough. Bosses have to deal with their own pressures and priorities. Added to that if they have just been promoted, they may still be learning the ropes of being a boss. Understanding this can make you more sensitive towards their problems. Due to their inexperience they may not realize the extent of direction that needs to be provided to subordinates. You can help them help you by articulating what kind of support you expect from them to do your job.


The Non Communicative - This manager communicates a decision and you are left clueless of the rationale for it. You are told to perform a task, but you do not understand the relevance of the same for the organization. You can ask for an explanation, but you are likely to not get one that satisfies you. Understanding your boss’ and organization's priorities may help you in this front. If you are new to the job this might be difficult, but over a period of time by observing trends and patterns you will figure out.

What about non difficult bosses?

Yes, we also need to manage them. Regardless of the type of boss we have we can have an effective relationship by following a few guidelines.

Appreciate realities: While some of us really do work for difficult bosses, most of us may only think we do. Check with your peers whether they also feel the same way. If not maybe you are being unreasonable. If you have faced problems with all your bosses maybe you need to reflect and see if the problem lies with you rather than the bosses.

Understand reasons for difficult behavior: As we saw earlier in the article, understanding the reasons for difficult behaviour helps in determining ways to deal with it.

Manage your own negative emotions regarding his/her behavior: It is important to do this so that you do not engage in self-defeating behavior like counter-attacking your boss.

Understand boss’ perspective: Look at issues from your boss’ perspective and not just from your own. Say your boss says ‘No’ to your dream project because there are insufficient funds, don't just complain. Understand from him/her what's needed to get it going and how you can help. By addressing the boss' concerns, you subtly influence him or her to work more on yours.

Communicate issues/concerns positively: If your boss generally behaves in a reasonable manner and his/her difficult behavior seems to be a result of stress overload, the behavior can be modified with feedback. While providing feedback, be clear about the issue and its impact without getting defensive or aggressive. Explain how the boss can resolve your concern. Ask for his/her commitment to follow through as agreed.

Use commitment based approach: Commitment-based approach with your bosses can provide good results. How this works is that you ask your boss to make specific commitments to you even if they are small. You follow up when your boss ignores or forgets that commitment by reminding him or her of the broken commitment.

Overcome fear: Often fear of how the person is going to react to you on discussing a problem prevents one from the broaching the subject. Overcoming this fear can bring things into the open and help sort out misunderstandings.

Be choosy about asking their opinions: If you ask your boss for an opinion, you will always get one. And the opinion may not always be the best one. However, once given, the opinion might seem like an order. So, if you don't want your boss' opinion to slow decision-making speed, or cloud the viewpoint, then don't ask for it. Well, don't ask if you don't need his/her opinion.

Don't just come up with problems: It is important to identify solutions to problems. So next time you take a problem to your boss also go with possible solutions. That way you are taking equal responsibility for solving it.

Educate: Agreed you are the technical expert since you spend all of your time on the issue. But you need your manager’s perspective because it is broader. While he/she may not know as much as you do, he/she can understand; so educate him/her. Educate by simplifying; using easy to understand language; by feeding him/her with articles, illustrations, best practices and summaries that help him/her see a perspective. By creating understanding, you relieve tensions; create trust that can lead to better decision-making.

Understand manager’s style: In managing your boss you should know her personal inclination, as well as your personal bias. If you are process oriented, you will tend to present issues in a systematic and orderly fashion, with pros and cons, chronology of tasks, etc. whereas he/she may prefer understanding the broad aspects leaving the detailing to you.

Be Trustworthy: Being trustworthy ensures that your boss has confidence in you and relies on you. And if he thinks you will help him succeed, he will make efforts to help you succeed.  Do not undermine trust by promising what you cannot deliver, by not delivering on what you promise, by surprising the boss with bad news without forewarning or by being sloppy in your work.


The relationship we have with our boss is perhaps one of the most important relationships we have at the workplace. While we may not have difficult bosses, at some point we do face difficulties in our relationship with them. Effectively managing the difficulties we face in our relationship with our bosses can help us become more effective in our jobs.



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