5 Ways to Tackle The Problem of the Problem Boss

I read an article in the Globe and Mail this week entitled,Dealing with an Irrational Boss”

One of the strategies it suggested to counteract the effects of a boss prone to rampages and the like, was to “put as many people as possible between you and your boss”

To me, (especially if you are a boss yourself), using other people as a cushion or perhaps even a shield to avoid direct contact with your own boss is not the way to model good leadership behaviour.

So, I’ve been having a think about an alternate approach when building a useful business relationship with the boss proves to be a challenge.

Here’s what comes to mind:

Know your Limits ~ We all place a limit on what we are willing to put up with when it comes to dealing with difficult people.  Many of us don’t know what that limit is until we get there.  By paying some attention to our personal values and being consciously aware of them, we have greater opportunity to stay well grounded even when we are standing in the eye of the boss’ s one-person hurricane.

Draw your Lines and Stand Your Ground ~ Being consciously aware of our limits allows us to know as soon as a line has been crossed.  It is then that our strength of character is called into play.  Allowing someone to exercise authority over us through fear and intimidation only encourages more of the same. Finding the courage to challenge such behaviour, (from Boss’s or anyone else), weakens their position.

As a cautionary note, standing your ground has its risks.  However, If the boss is consistently tyrannical, and chooses to punish you for retaining your self-respect, working with him or her is not likely something you aspire to do over the long haul anyway.  In this case, the wise person will be planning to make a change, job-wise.

Add Value ~ Unless your boss is a true monster, it is likely that his or her primary goal will not be to make your life a misery, even if it feels that way sometimes. As such, the key to the boss’s regard may just lie in finding ways to support and promote the achievement of organizational goals and encouraging those who work with you to do the same.

Make a Difference ~ People are watching.  If you are a boss dealing with a difficult boss, know that you are being watched.  The way you respond sends a message to all who follow you.  Just because your boss is hard to deal with, doesn’t mean that you have to be that way too.  Find ways to break the cycle.  Make a difference by demonstrating what it means to be a good leader.

Resist Gossip ~ Irrational bosses are talked about.  A Lot.  It’s an outlet that allows people to lick their wounds in sympathy with each other.  As a boss yourself, it serves little purpose to participate in “pity parties “of this nature, tempting though it may be.  If you choose to spend your time complaining about your boss, your opportunity to make a breakthrough in your relationship with him or her will be diminished accordingly.

The bottom line is that while some bosses are so irrational they are beyond redemption, others may just require more work to establish common and mutually respectful ground.

What do you think?



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development

12 responses to “5 Ways to Tackle The Problem of the Problem Boss

  1. Gwyn,

    This is a very difficult situation. Besides receiving a paycheck for the work that is done, I think the second most important part of a job is your relationship with your boss. It has such a huge effect on not only your happiness at work but also in your personal life. Problems at work often carry over to home.

    When two people are having a problem, I believe direct communication between the two parties is usually the best way to handle the situation. If both parties are reasonable and willing to work towards a solution, I think most of the time one can be found. However, like you said, the boss may just be too irrational for a solution to be found.

    I know everybody may not be able to do this. But if I were in that position where I had an irrational boss that was creating lots of problems, I would do my best to find another job.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Greg ~ Yes, I agree that when all else has failed, working on an exit strategy is a very good idea. I also think we have to beware of giving up too quickly. Some boss’s are difficult but not impossible and perhaps there are times when it behooves us to make an effort to stand in their shoes for a time not just for them but also for ourselves. One thing I learned from working with a particular ‘difficult’ boss is that under all the bluster was a very decent…and stressed out guy.
      I believe, like you, that in these situations direct communication is always best. Thank you for that and for starting off this conversation.

  2. This weekend this blog post and Dolly Daskal’s blog post on courage:


    came by me. Yours focuses on the relationship up to the boss and Dolly’s focuses on the relationship down from the boss to the employee. Yet both postings resonated with me on the human factors in those relationships and the energy it takes to move past the status quo.

    As it happens, I wrote a blog post for myself yesterday to remind myself of what I need to do to be the best person I can be, both personally and in my professional relationships, boss or otherwise:


    Thanks for sharing.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      David ~ Thank you for pointing me to Lolly’s post. It does indeed speak to ideas in common and from two different perspectives. Your post also reminds me that this human existence is always a work in progress.

  3. I would add “Look for another job”. I belong to the cynical “people don’t really change” school of thought, and one doesn’t want to spend all one’s energy managing other people’s behaviour. I would rather concentrate on the work!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Leslie ~ Well that’s fair enough. There can come a time when some relationships are beyond repair and you simply have to move on. I’m thinking too that sometimes difficulties in relationships with the boss also have a way of getting in the way of the work no matter how hard you concentrate on it. So, before packing it in completely, it seems to me that efforts to find common ground would not go amiss.

  4. Gwyn,
    You are tackling a tough issues here. Bad bosses (and people) come in a number, but a limited set, of variations. One of the worst webinars I ever presented was on dealing with toxic people in the workplace. It is clearly not a one- size-fits-all problem set. A colleague once suggested there needs to be a book outlining the various “difficult” personality types and how to deal with them at work. In all situations, I do think, however, in all relationship problems, we have to first ask in what way we are part of creating or maintaining the problem in the relationship. If it clearly is the bad boss, I agree with Leslie, look for a new job, if at all possible. Until then, document and don’t go up against the boss, or the system, alone. Gather support first.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Anne ~ From your comment, there are two points that I want to repeat because their importance warrants it. The first is that in any relationship, when problems arise, we would do well to begin by asking ourselves how we might be contributing to the problem.
      The second is the importance of documenting and gathering support.
      As mentioned, some people are, for whatever reason, toxic. That calls for the strategy you and Leslie advocate…get out when you can.
      Thanks for adding depth to the post and the conversation.

  5. Hi Gwyn,
    I checked out The Globe and Mail piece that inspired this post and I too, was surprised by the advice that “filtering” your bosses’ message through others would somehow make the situation better. I wonder if the writer has ever played the game “Telephone”; if he did, he’d know only too well how such ‘filtering’ can lead to more problems as the message gets distorted and obscured through the perceptions of by-standers.

    Dealing with an irrational or ‘toxic’ boss can be difficult (been there, done that thank you very much), but trying to filter your communications between you and your boss through your colleages is most definitely not the way to go about trying to improve the situation.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Tanveer ~ Yes, I found that particular strategy surprising too. There’s no doubt that the problem of toxic bosses is huge and there are a variety of theories and practices to deal with it. I’m thinking that this post, while by no means offering solutions, has managed to spark a useful conversation. Thanks for being a part of it.

  6. AJ

    I just approached my manager today about placing expectations on people without having trained them first. She usually makes employees and other members of our management team cry when coaching. I had to set up boundaries with her and also let her know what kind of correction works for me. I view every task as do or die, sink or swim with her. I also admitted my fault in this, too. I take things the wrong way sometimes, which is not fair to her. I cannot project things onto her because of what has happened in my past.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi AJ ~ I applaud you for setting boundaries with your manager and for examining your own behaviour too. It takes courage. Being honest with our bosses, including where we draw our lines, usually reveals something about how much respect we can expect. And, to me, mutual respect is fundamental to building a productive relationship with the boss. Thank you for sharing your story here, AJ. I wish you well.

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