Work it Out: Dealing with a Difficult Boss

Got a toxic manager? Here's how to survive and even thrive.

Medically Reviewed by Patricia A. Farrell, PhD on July 15, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

You couldn't wait to get that job -- and now you can't wait to leave, thanks to your boss. It's a situation that is, unfortunately, commonplace. Nearly half of employees surveyed by the national administrative staffing firm Office Team say they've worked for an unreasonable boss.

Maybe yours is a micromanager or a bully. Or an insensitive, abusive, or just plain dysfunctional person -- supervising you in a job you had hoped might lead to more meaningful work or greater accomplishments. Believe it or not, your response to the situation may be the ticket to getting both.

"At first, you have ‘boss love' and then you have a rude awakening," says work-life expert Tevis Rose Trower, founder of Balance Integration Corp. in New York City. She's been there herself, and says you can squeeze lemonade from that lemon of a job you can't afford to quit. But you'll need to make some changes, just as Trower once did with a problematic manager.

Learn to Adapt

"This boss held court and psychoanalyzed my life while I was pinned to the chair across her mahogany desk," Trower recalls. Instead of retreating, Trower took the high road, learning "to hold the boss in compassion" even when she monopolized Trower's time. The boss's need to talk at Trower for hours on end was her way of expressing a basic human desire, says Trower, who reluctantly broke her own hardline rule of not getting sidetracked from "mountains of work" and listened to her boss. The tactic worked, creating a path for Trower to move forward.

To cope when a difficult boss threatens to hold you back, first ask yourself honestly and objectively, "Now that I'm living this job, how do I give it permission to be exactly as it is?" If you're a "comfort-seeking" person, keep in mind that you'll never find the perfect workplace or perfect anything. "Whatever you don't tolerate will show up for you somewhere else. Patterns repeat themselves," Trower says.

For example, maybe you're so upset that you obsess over every little thing your boss does. That won't help improve your work satisfaction. "You'll live in hatred for most of your waking, even sleeping, hours," says Trower. "You don't go to your job to fall in love with everyone, but to use talents and abilities as best you can to achieve an outcome. Any goodness, smile, or camaraderie is icing on the cake." So let people be people, including your boss, knowing they won't change.

"Your real job is to make yourself as adaptable, responsive, intelligent, and skillful in as many situations as possible," Trower says, and that includes your relationship -- good, bad, or in between -- with the person who happens to be your boss.

"Then you can choose where you ultimately want to be."

Skills for Handling Toxic Managers

Hone these skills for coping with a difficult boss.

Practice basic self-care. Ground yourself with positive thought patterns, regular exercise, and plenty of rest. In tough times, self-care is non-negotiable.

Set boundaries. Other people can only affect you if you allow them to do so. It's your responsibility to "filter" and manage negative thoughts. Focus on aligning with your reality, not complaining.

Optimize communication. Imagine being available and receptive to your boss's comments, and sharing your own needs in a non-contentious way. Create a kind of "verbal agreement" to effectively support your boss -- so you can both get the job done. Try saying: "I want to be good at this. One thing that will help me is this."

Expert Tip

"You may share the same values with your boss, but you may also have a personality conflict. Even so, never lay so many expectations that you make yourself sick." -- Tevis Rose Trower, MA.

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Show Sources


Tevis Rose Trower, MA, founder, Balance Integration Corporation, New York, N.Y.

Carlson, D. et al.  Personnel Psychology, published online November 20, 2011.

Nyberg A, et al.  Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online November 27, 2008.

News release: American Psychological Association

Centers for Disease Control: "STRESS at Work…"

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