How To Work With A Boss You Hate

Sometimes we have the pleasure of working with a manager we really like and respect, and who respects us too. Other times, the relationship isn’t so great, and we have to deal with someone we can barely tolerate. Here’s how to grow a thicker skin at the office and learn to deal with a less-than-ideal boss.

Title photo made using Aleksandr Markin (Shutterstock) and fuzzbones (Pond5).

Bad Person Or Bad Manager?

The first thing you need to figure out is whether your boss is a bad manager or a bad person. The former implies that he doesn’t give you the direction, priorities and guidance you need to succeed at your job. The latter is a highly subjective way of saying the two of you don’t see eye-to-eye for personal reasons. If your boss is a bad manager, you can compensate for their issues with planning and structure. If your issue with your boss is one of personality, your job will require some perspective-checking on your part. There are ways through both problems, but you’re not going to make any headway at all if you’re not clear on which issue you’re facing. Photo by Istvan Hajas (Shutterstock).

Find Out If You’re Part Of The Problem

Here’s a question you probably don’t want to ask yourself: are you the problem here? Remember, everyone is the hero of their own story, and everyone believes they’re the party in the right. Your manager is no different. Step back for a moment and ask yourself if you’re contributing to the poor relationship.

On Careers notes that many frustrated employees may simply be oversensitive to the criticisms and natural flow of their workplace. For example, if you’re obsessed with the tone your boss uses in workplace discussions, you can easily miss the actual message.

We’ve discussed how to take criticism in a professional fashion and without getting worked up over the tone or delivery. Focus on the message, instead of your boss’s personality. Try to separate your emotional response from the things that irritate you, and give your boss clear but professional feedback when they do things that make you uncomfortable. You’re both adults; you can act like it. Choose your battles wisely, and understand that you both have to work together.

Differentiate ‘Like’ and ‘Respect’

In the military, you don’t get to choose your boss or quit if you don’t like them. You have to find a way to figure out your differences and move on. Working in a corporate IT department or helping customers on the sales floor isn’t the same as being on active service, but you can take a few cues from the military world. Remember: you’re not at work to make friends. That’s wonderful when it happens, but you need to separate whether you like your boss from whether you can learn to respect their position. Photo by Tom Wang (Shutterstock).

We’re not glossing over how difficult this can be. When polled its readers asking what traits made someone a “bad boss”, common themes emerged. Their boss didn’t respect them, or had never earned their respect. Their boss wasn’t qualified to do their jobs, much less manage them. Their boss was terrible at communicating, or setting expectations or priorities. These are all difficult to overcome, but getting past them starts with at least respecting the fact that your manager in in charge. That doesn’t mean accepting everything they do, or even respecting them as a person, but it does mean accepting and understanding that you have to work with this person somehow. The rest is small stuff you can work through.

What You Can Do By Yourself To Cope

Even if your job sucks, that doesn’t mean you can’t fix it. Let’s start with ways you can manage yourself. Whether your issues with your boss are personal or professional, you can benefit from some simple coping mechanisms. Photo by bottled_void.

  • Understand what stress does to you and how to fight it. If your boss stresses you out and makes you angry, you can benefit from simple office-friendly stress relief tricks such as meditation, deep breathing for 10 seconds, or taking a walk to calm yourself before responding. If your boss is right in front of you and you’re getting angry, try to intercept your emotional response and let them know you’ll respond appropriately later. Whatever you do, separate the content of the message from its delivery. Focusing on the former is useful; focusing on the latter is a recipe for trouble.
  • Keep a work diary or a paper trail of interactions with them. If your boss is sexist, racist or makes you uncomfortable at work, a work diary can be a useful tool if you need to report them to someone higher up. In this case, we’d also suggest using it as catharsis. Writing down how your interactions with your boss make you feel goes a long way towards helping you cope. You can keep your thoughts private, enjoy the benefits of getting it all out, and go back to work.
  • Find a mentor you can look up to. A mentor — potentially a manager in another department — can often help you understand your boss’s pressures and challenges in a non-threatening way. They may be willing to level with you in a way your boss isn’t. Plus, while you may not be able to tell them everything, the whole point of having a mentor is to help you learn, grow and develop your skills — which include working with difficult people.
  • Draw clear lines between your work and your life. Get a hobby outside of work. Exercise. We’ve discussed how bad bosses can follow you home, and some of the best coping mechanisms you can muster are the ones that force you to remember and enjoy what you’re working those long hours for in the first place. Spend time with family and loved ones, and make sure to fiercely protect your personal time away from work. Set your boundaries. Keep your relationship with your boss in a defined work area and enjoy living your life.

All of these coping mechanisms are things you can do for yourself to help improve your mindset. We’re not getting into the “It’s not fair that I have to learn to cope while my boss can continue being a jerk” battle. We’re all adults here, and we’re all professionals. The moment you get stuck in that bean-counting, tit-for-tat mindset of “why should I have to do anything,” it’s over. We don’t always get to choose who we work with — sometimes you just have to suck it up and work with what’s in your power to change.

What You Can Do To Repair Your Relationship

Now that you have some tools to work on yourself, it’s time to work on your boss and peel back some of those layers that you hate. With luck, you’ll find something you can work with. Here are some suggestions to help.

  • Get closer to your boss. If your boss’s problem is that they don’t communicate, or set priorities or expectations for the work they assign you, get closer to them. Meet with them regularly — even offer to schedule the meetings yourself — to discuss those priorities and the things you’re working on. Yes, those meetings could result in even more work, but wouldn’t you rather get it every Wednesday at 3pm when you’re talking work anyway than on Friday at 4pm when it’s due before the end of the day? As well, setting a time where you can talk about work gives you the opportunity to push back and ask your boss what can come off your plate to make room for the new stuff you have to do.
  • Learn to “manage up” and give constructive criticism without sounding like a jerk. As we mentioned earlier, you and your boss are both adults and professionals. Unless your boss is both a bad manager and a bad person, they’ll understand a little constructive criticism from time to time, especially if you deliver it properly. Let them know what aspect of their behaviour is getting under your skin. Come armed with suggestions that might improve your relationship too. Simply saying you hate how they talk to you isn’t helpful. Asking them to pull you aside to talk privately when they have a concern and concentrating on “What can I/we do to make this work better?” is helpful.
  • Work with your boss’s skills and on his/her priorities. The reality is that the most qualified people for a job don’t always get it. Sometimes a manager is brought in from another department because they’re owed a favour, or because the company couldn’t find someone to fill a role. Sometimes you’ll have an engineer leading a team of project managers, or vice versa. Get familiar with your boss’s background and see how you can relate on common ground. While you’re at it, find out what their priorities for your team are, and who your boss works hardest for. That should give you some insight on what you should be paying attention to and who’s projects are most important to your boss. A surefire way to take the heat off is to work on your boss’s priorities first.
  • Don’t just be an employee, be your boss’ assistant. Use your one-on-one time with your manager to discuss upcoming priorities as well. Don’t leave any excuse for you to not know what your boss is working on, or what rumours or rumblings your boss may be privy to that will have an effect on your workload. We’re big fans of the weekly review. Bring your boss in on it as well. If you have a small team, suggest to your boss that you all spend a short time each week clarifying priorities and talking about what’s on everyone’s shared plates. Doing so will get your boss communicating with you in a group setting, and take some of the sting out of their poor managerial skills.
  • Solve problems and propose solutions as a way to get revenge. It’s often said that living well is the best revenge. Fip the problem on its head and kill your boss with kindness and productivity. If your boss makes you upset, treat them like a bully: Don’t give them the satisfaction of a reaction — instead give them exactly what they’re supposed to want in their role: a solution to the issue they’ve brought up. Solve your work problems, take credit for them, and then let them know the good work you’ve done. Take the initiative, and make yourself appear to be your boss’s peer to your colleagues and customers, not their subordinate. The best way to do this, of course, is to do great work. Let your bad boss transform you into a better employee.

If the problem with your boss is that they’re a bad manager, sometimes using personal leverage and common ground to get around their managerial problems is the best way for you — and for them — to succeed. After all, part of working for someone is to help cover their butt — if you prove to your boss that you’re interested in doing this, they’ll be more willing to work with you. If the problem is personal, sometimes getting close enough so you grow on one another is the key to breaking the wall between you. Working on the same priorities towards a common goal can melt even the thickest ice. Remember: you’re on the same team here.

If All Else Fails, You Know What To Do

If nothing else works, quit. Sometimes all of the common ground, shared priorities, coping mechanisms and de-stressing techniques can’t heal the rift between you and a bad boss. That said, don’t just quit at the first sign. It’s easy to say “your boss sucks, get out of there” when you’re good at being employed, or if you’re someone who’s already employed talking to someone who loves their job but hates their manager. Sometimes it’s worth it to try and work it out, and working it out takes effort and time. Give it a try first. Photo by Carey Ciuro.

If that doesn’t work, it might be time to look for something else. If you love your company, see if you can find another opening in-house you can transfer to. That comes with its own risks, but it may be worth doing to stay where you love the work. Otherwise, make a graceful exit.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you won’t wind up in a new job with a new boss you hate, so plan carefully and make sure to check yourself before doing anything rash. Perhaps you’re just not cut out to work for someone else, and you should consider working for yourself or starting your own business. In both cases, you get to work for yourself, and if you boss still sucks after that, you have a real problem.

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