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Working with a Difficult Boss Can Help You Grow

Take a deep breath

If you are reading this column it’s likely that you are working with a difficult boss. Maybe you’re wondering how or if you will manage to keep your job. Perhaps you’ve already got one foot out the door and are actively updating your resume. Working with a difficult boss is not for the timid. However, there may be much for you to learn from the position you are in. Take a deep breath and slow down long enough to look at your choices.

Yes, you do have choices

When you are working with a difficult boss, it is easy to get worn down. Your difficult boss obviously holds greater positional power than you. He or she may also be strongly projecting personal power which leaves you feeling small and powerless. Even so, you do have choices and you may have more power than you are recognizing in your worn down state.

You may not like the choices that you have

When faced with deciding to stay or leave because of working with a difficult boss, it is easy to assume these are your only two choices. However, there are other possible choices you could make which you may not be seeing. Or perhaps you see them but are reluctant to act on them. You may see them as “bad” choices or you may be fearful of making them, but they are still choices possible for you. This means you are not powerless. When we feel powerless, we get “stuck”. When we recognize our choices, there is a path forward that we can take.

Your difficult boss has his or her own problems

Perhaps you believe that your difficult boss is deliberately trying to make you miserable. While it is possible this is true, it’s more likely that one of the basic truths of organization life is playing out. Much that seems personal is not personal.

Your difficult boss’s world is one of complexity and accountability

Within all organizations, the “Tops” are ultimately accountable for everything that happens. In your boss’s role, there will be countless pressures and complex inputs coming in constantly. Your difficult boss may be having his or her own problems with getting things done. Through no fault of your own, you may be blind to many of the work-related things that are keeping your boss awake at night. I’m not making excuses for difficult boss behavior. However, this dynamic around your boss’s role is too important to ignore.

No matter what your difficult boss is doing, you’re still in charge of you

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that there are two ways to go to the gas chamber — free or not free. In all situations, including working with a difficult boss, you are still in charge of how you choose to respond. How you think about your difficult boss leads to how you feel about him or her. Your feelings about him or her lead to how you behave in response. The way you behave leads to results and outcomes. If you don’t like the results and outcomes you are experiencing with your difficult boss, choose to work with the only person you can definitely change. That’s you.

Here are some choices you could make that would make a difference

You could choose to. . .

  • Stop taking your difficult boss’s behavior so personally
  • Learn more about the challenges and problems your boss is dealing with
  • Think about how you might help him or her with those challenges and problems
  • Offer to help, with no expectation attached that your offer will be accepted
  • Stay focused on your own priorities and goals and look for ways to make them happen while supporting your boss
  • Identify your difficult boss’s specific behaviors that create difficulty and
    • consider offering timely, helpful feedback describing the impact of those problematic behaviors – with an intention of helping your boss
    • identify what he or she is doing which “triggers” you to fall back on your own worst tendencies
    • work on developing healthier, more constructive responses instead (remember — you are in charge of you!)
  • Stop seeing yourself as a victim or a martyr

Remember that wherever you go, there you are

In the end, you may still choose to leave because your difficult boss’s behavior is just too hard for you to accept. I would never recommend that you stay if you’re working in what feels like a hostile environment or if you’re asked to do or support anything you see as unethical or illegal.

Short of that, be mindful that you are likely to run into the same difficult boss behaviors in a future job. Working for your difficult boss is a learning opportunity, a chance to strengthen your ability to work with someone whose behavior may be bringing out your own worst tendencies. If you choose to work on your own “stuff”, down the road you might even be thankful to have worked for him or her.

How might this difficult boss experience help you grow?

Ginger Ward-Green

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