Reporting to a difficult boss is stressful and impacts on your productivity. Some bosses act like bullies and demean their staff; others are more indirect and act indifferently or completely ignore team members. When the communication is poor or non-existent, knowing how to change your approach with your boss is critical in establishing and promoting a better working relationship.
You can reduce these struggles by developing a different communication process. Whether you’ve just started noticing problematic behaviour from your boss or if it’s a long-term issue, by modifying how you think and react to your boss, creating specific targets around roles and agreements, and seeking mutually beneficial outcomes, can transform the way in which you interact with your boss and significantly improve your working environment and relationship.
Here are some strategies to help you improve your relationship with a difficult boss.
- Know your Personal Triggers
- Set Ground Rules
- Clarify Job Roles
- Aim for Consensus
- Agree on Mutually Beneficial Outcomes
Do know your personal triggers
Some words and non-verbal actions hit you more negatively than others. In order to communicate effectively with your boss you have to be grounded. Grounding requires you to acknowledge specific behaviours your boss does to set you off (e.g. yelling, micro-management, etc.) and learning how to control your reaction. You’ll be calmer and stay mentally focused versus emotionally reactive.
Do set ground rules
When you meet with your boss, layout the framework for the discussion. Every meeting should consist of three to five clear objectives you want to engage your boss with. You control the message and content of the conversation around these key points. The meeting is about work and getting information or receiving answers to questions you need to complete your tasks. Your focus is not on your boss’s disruptive behaviour.
Do clarify job roles
Objectives outline the business needs to be completed by you and your boss. Role clarity identifies what and how each party gets tasks done. If your boss tries to have you shoulder all the work and accountability of a shared task, reframe the discussion until your boss provides specific commitment to his or her responsibilities and yours. Building mutual accountability is crucial to meeting deadlines and deliverables.
Do push for consensus
Document and verbally commit to outcomes. Determine time-frames for completion of tasks, follow-up conversation, and any other processes required to meet your stated goals. Acknowledge any blocking or defensiveness your boss may have to committing to the success of the project or task. (e.g. “I understand your concern; let’s look at it this way…”) Your communication should direct your boss to feeling in control of how common needs will be driven as a partnership with you.
Do agree on mutually beneficial outcomes
Always tie collaboration between you and your boss as the best and most effective way to get work done. Once you have your boss aligned to what you need in order to get your work done, stress the advantages of your plan as meeting your boss’s needs. The need may be your boss’s ego more than the business, but by walking away from the discussion leaving your boss feeling in control, that risk is reduced. And your boss’s help is necessary to your mutual success
- Go on the Attack
- Fall into an Emotional Trap
- Make the Wrong Assumptions
- Meet without a plan or Strategy
- Forget to Measure and Assess Progress
Do not go on the attack
Standing up to your boss and being a hero to your co-workers is tempting but usually backfires. If your boss is a bully, standing up to him or her about dysfunctional behaviours is seen as a challenge. The same applies to aloof or distant bosses, who will only withdraw further or completely shut down when threatened. Pre-plan a measured communication approach, targeting specific needs and outcomes rather than a charged emotional assault.
Do not fall into emotional traps
Fear of confrontation robs energy and personal power. Self-talk about how the conversation with your boss will fail, or complete avoidance of your boss just cements more disruptive behaviour. Convincing yourself through compromises in your behaviour or actions jeopardises your ability to find balance in the relationship. Visualise how you can address concerns and yield a productive outcome.
Do not make the wrong assumptions
If you are angry or depressed because of your boss’s bad behaviour, it’s easy to conclude that the problem lies only with the personality of your boss. You assume your boss is a sociopath, egotistic, or stupid. In many cases, the behaviour is driven by immaturity in a management role, internal top-down demands, or external challenges.
Seek to understand why the pattern of behaviour exists in order to uncover clues for how you can help your boss. By stepping back and looking at the work environment holistically, you improve your ability to communicate with your boss with clarity of thinking. If you act only on your bias and assumptions, the result will be low job satisfaction and feelings of disengagement and disconnection.
Do not meet without a Plan or Strategy
Practice your approach before meeting with your boss. Identify a short list of goals and rehearse your pitch. Imagine selling a product to a client who doesn’t know you. You follow steps that provide highlights, a summary and a call to action. The same is true if your boss is difficult to talk to, doesn’t have time, or tries to do all the talking. A plan of action grounds your thinking towards clear objectives. This showcases your position and maintains your power in the conversation.
Do not forget to Measure and Assess progress
Changing the relationship with a difficult boss takes time and patience. Small steps are required to move forward and you might have to try different tactics to guide your boss into conversation with you that is not obstructive, offensive, or ineffective. Set personal follow-up indicators at the completion of project milestones, after addressing unforeseen business issues that crop up, congruent with performance review processes. Maintain the approach that is working and adapt your communication process to changing conditions as needed.