Dealing with difficult managers

In the past few months, I was talking with a friend who had a difficult boss. We have different bosses over the span of our career, and unless we are the very lucky few, we will come across some that makes us seriously contemplate leaving the job. I had my share of that and she has one right now. In her case, the manager has problem giving honest feedback directly. Instead, he will give the impression that she has done well, only for her to find out later that he doesn’t think so. During the annual performance review, she was told how well she had done and achieved a high rating. However, when it was officially documented, it was not so. Such behavior was repeated in other situations as well, as she is considering to leave the job.

I had to deal with a difficult manager a few times in my career too. In one situation, the problem I faced was that I have to guess what my boss actually wants. We will be discussing my performance goals for the year. I asked him what he wants me to accomplish. He wants me to come up with a list. When I share it with him, he simply say he didn’t like it, but will not say what he is looking for. We will go through several iterations and it drove me nuts trying to guess what he has in mind. For several months, I actively looked for a way out.

These are just two examples. Other common problems include self-centered bosses whose primary interest are to :

  • gain self recognition and progression
  • finger point at others
  • avoid responsibilities
  • shamelessly brush away the accountability

What can we do about it ? It really depends on our situation. Like, how bad is the situation affecting us, the kind of company that we are working for, what is under our control.

A good first step will be to determine if this is a temporary situation or a longer term issue. Bosses are human after all and they may be dealing with issues that we are not aware of and is behaving abnormally. Take some time and observe if it is a habit or an anomaly. Consider talking to colleagues and see if this is happening to other people as well. There is a possibility that the fault lies with us rather. After determining that the manager is indeed the problem, here are some options to consider.

Riding it out.

In some cases, the best course of action is simply to wait. In big corporations, management changes occur frequently. I recall a time when we had someone in a senior position. He is intelligent and never miss a chance to show off. Meetings with him were always a dreaded experience for everyone involved. It didn’t help that his last name is just one letter off from ‘Hell’. Luckily, we were going through a period of changes and he was only in the position for about 9 months. The benefit of this option is that we get to keep the same environment, same group of colleagues and not burn any bridges. In the meantime, we can find ways to minimize the impact.

Sorting it out.

If change of management is not likely to happen anytime soon, we can consider making things better by working it out with the manager. When choosing this option, we want to be totally objective. Having to work under a difficult environment, it is fully understandable that we will be frustrated, and emotion will run high. But if we choose to work it out, we have to put emotion aside and deal with it professionally. Speak with your manager, explain the challenges you are facing and ask for his help to resolve it. It may be tempting just to lay it all on him but that is not the best approach. No one wants to be blamed even though they are at fault. If we approach it with a neutral position, we are likely to reach agreement. We may have a long list of grievances but focus and work on those with the biggest impact. It is the 80/20 rule. When the main drivers are addressed, we are more willing to forgive and ignore the others.

Keep an open mind. When I was dealing with the difficult manager, I had to come up with more options that I thought I had, to position things from a different perspective. I learn to prepare myself mentally before every meeting with my manager so that I will not over-react. Where appropriate, I used email to prepare our discussion so to minimize the frustrating moments when we spoke.

Besides getting to keep the job and working with the (other) people that we like, we learn new skills and gain new experience.

Moving out.

Sometimes, the only way is out. This shouldn’t be taken lightly because there is a lot more at stake. We may be leaving a job that we really like, or one that has good career advancement opportunities. The relationship with colleagues and the network that we have built up are also at stake. I had to take such a position early in my career. I really enjoyed the work but the conditions were bad. She had made secret deals where I will be not get any promotions and salary increases until she made certain progress in her own career.
Overall, I am lucky to have worked for more great managers than poor ones. I have a change of manager every two years on the average and I learn to work with different personalities, management styles and temperament. Positive or negative, they each contributed to my experience and I am better for it.

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