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Working With A Difficult Boss

By Dennis Coghlin, LCSW

Anyone who has worked for a living has probably had the experience of working with a difficult boss. They come in a wide variety of temperaments and styles; responding to them can be challenging at best. Bosses can trigger a wide variety of feelings from mild annoyance to rage, and since the boss-employee relationship is inherently unequal, the political landscape can be fraught with danger. Doing something and doing nothing both carry potential risks.

To better understand your difficult boss, it is useful to see the hidden purposes behind the difficult behavior. There are four types of dysfunctional behaviors, each reflecting a different hidden purpose. Understanding them as one or a combination of these types empowers you to improve your relationship with your boss rather than continuing to unconsciously react in negative, self- defeating ways.

A boss who demands constant attention and service characterizes the first behavior type. He or she annoys you and creates a climate of anxiety by initiating endless small talk, scheduling unnecessary meetings, asking for pointless updates, or by frequent and unnecessary phone calls, texts and emails, just to name a few. The purpose is to keep your time and attention on him or her. The deeper purpose is to relieve their feelings of insecurity and anxiety that result from feelings of alienation. A small investment such as asking the boss how his weekend was or giving an update on a project without being asked can go a long way in reassuring the boss of his place in the organization and decreasing the difficult behavior.

The second type of difficult behavior is based on power and control. These bosses inflict their power and control over you by making unreasonable demands, veiled threats, micromanaging or, in more severe cases, yelling, intimidating, or bullying you. Their purpose is to prove their superiority with domination and control, but the deeper purpose is an attempt to relieve their own powerless and out of control feelings. Communicating a desire to work cooperatively and to do your best can go a long way to decrease this behavior. Preceding statements of disagreement with words such as, “It’s your decision but have you considered...?” has the reassuring effect of letting your boss know that you know he is the boss.

The third type of difficult behavior is revenge with the purpose of hurting you. This destructive behavior stems from your boss’s need to relieve his or her own hurt feelings. Since they are only human, bosses often communicate their hurt feelings indirectly by inflicting hurt on you. Denying routine requests, giving others credit for your work, or not inviting you to a meeting or conference, are some of the more subtle examples of revengeful behaviors. Hurtful comments, passing you up for a promotion, or disparaging you to others are more overt and destructive. Confronting the issue directly by asking the boss if you have hurt him or her and offering a word of validation for hurt feelings could go a long way in repairing the relationship. Remember to keep in mind that confronting an issue is not the same as confronting a person’s behavior. Confronting the behavior will probably cause defensiveness that will likely increase the revenge.

The final type of toxic behavior is withdrawal. The purpose is to withdraw from the demands of being the boss with the hidden purpose being to prevent embarrassing exposure of his or her inability to cope with those demands. Avoiding answering difficult questions, frequent absences, holding up in his or her office with the door shut, are all signs of withdrawing and can leave you feeling discouraged. Acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, offering your boss ideas and help with these situations in a non-threatening way can let him or her know that he or she does not have to have all the answers and serves as a reminder that you are a valued and trusted resource.

It is important to keep in mind that not all dysfunctional boss – employee relationships can be repaired. In my work as a therapist I often remind my clients of Eckhart Tolle’s (The Power of Now) thought on coping with difficult situations. There are three possible conscious responses – to accept it, change it or to leave it. The unconscious reaction is to fight it. Fighting it always makes it worse. Your ultimate power is in the choices you have – as long as you are aware of them.