How to deal with a difficult boss

Are you currently having a hard time dealing with your boss or some of your coworkers? If not right now, have you ever? To be honest, I have, both in Japan and in the U.S. Over the years, I have worked with many types of bosses from various cultures – from really difficult ones to just wonderful ones. So, I wanted to share what I have learned.

First, let’s categorize them. People often talk about whether certain people are micromanagers or not. However, micromanagers are not always difficult bosses. In other words, there are different categories you can use when you determine what type of boss yours is.  You can observe your boss to see if s/he is 1. abusive 2. neglectful 3. and/or have their own issues. If your boss is none of the above, you may be lucky!

  1. Abusive bosses – This is self-explanatory. They are mean, always deny your ideas, cut you off in the middle of the sentences, and are just plain bossy. They are so caught up with their own power and don’t know how to work with others collaboratively. They are, oftentimes, narcissistic as well. Unfortunately, the leaders of this type are so typical in this world. They climbed up the ladder probably because they are who they are. The positive part is that it is fairly easy to spot them. Therefore, it can be easy to come up with the strategies to deal with them as well.  
  2. Neglectful bosses – At first, it may be hard to find out your boss is actually this type because his/her negativity is somewhat covert. However, this type of boss can be more challenging to deal with than abusive ones actually. They may seem nice on the surface, but when you watch their behavior closely, you will see that they don’t really care about what you do, and they are not motivated to help you either. Just like abusive bosses, they are caught up with themselves, but just not with their power. What is happening is that they are occupied with their own issues or interests. That’s why they don’t have time or capacity to attend to others. Deep inside, they may be feeling insecure and may not be able to make decisions for the team, yet many of them would not admit that. Thus, they leave the issues unsolved or avoid them and may end up making the issues much bigger than necessary.
  3. Bosses dealing with their own issues – 1 & 2 types of bosses may very well be dealing with some kind of personal issues, but their problems might be much more serious than you would think. They could be dealing with significant family issues, such as divorce, sickness or death of a family member, and so on. As a result, they might have developed some mental health issues. They could also be dealing with financial problems, a crime, or the disability/mental traits they were born with.

Next, I will explain what kind of strategies would work best for each type.

  1. For this type of boss, it is important to take realistic measures. For example, when your boss harasses you or makes comments that are offensive/abusive to you, it is essential to keep records of those comments or behaviors. When you document the incident, make sure to include the date & time, what happened, what s/he said, what you said, and any witnesses. If the incident is serious enough, you could contact HR or your boss’s boss. Although this is not legal advice, these are the basics of handling any harassment. Keep in mind that HR or the company administrators could be more protective of your boss than you. If this happens, you need to think about what you want to do next (e.g., seeking help from a third party, leaving the position, etc.). Most importantly, it is necessary to think about the ways to minimize interactions with the abusive boss.
  2. The key to deal with this type of boss is to set clear boundaries. They are the worst when it comes to setting healthy boundaries. Thus, you have to help them a little. When they are crossing boundaries, they may not realize that. For example, they may ask you to work more than you are supposed to. They may make this type of request very nicely, so you may not think to say no at the moment. However, you have to. It is OK to clarify what you can and cannot do. It is also important not to help them when they messed something up. Even if you cannot point out their mistakes, it is very important to be aware that it is your boss’s mistake, not yours.
  3. In this case, their problems are not caused by you. So, all you need to do is not take things personally. In other words, it is OK to cut their issues off of yourself because they are actually nothing to do with you. For example, your boss may say something harsh to you, but s/he may be just irritated with his/her own situation. Or s/he may have blamed you for something that was not your fault, but s/he may have forgotten about what s/he said just because s/he had to be up all night the day before. One thing to remember is that you may need to get to know your boss reasonably well to find out what is really going on. If you wan to figure things out but don’t feel like you know enough about your boss, getting close to other coworkers who are familiar with your boss’s situation is one strategy you can use.

Finally, in order to deal with all types of bosses, it is important to look at the big picture. It may help to ask yourself these questions: Who is s/he like in your life? Does s/he remind you of your abusive parent? Your sibling? Or your former teacher/coach etc.? Which part of him/her are you afraid of or most annoyed with? If you realize you are actually thinking of the person who had power over you in the past, the real problem may not be your boss, but your past, and the issue may not be solved until you resolve your past issues.

And…if you are in a difficult situation right now, hang in there!! I believe even difficult experiences will help you grow and make you become a good mentor, supervisor, or parent yourself in the future.