How to Understand and Deal with a Difficult Boss

Posted by Guthrie-Jensen Consultants

In 2015, a Gallup study revealed that 50% of the 7,200 adults surveyed left a job “to get away from their manager.” This implies that many professionals, at some point in their career, have had to deal with a difficult boss.

Managers provide instruction and feedback, does one-on-one meetings, and connects the employee to the larger part of the organization. When an employee has a toxic relationship with his superior, he is often left less motivated, less engaged, and less committed to contributing to work.

While you don’t necessarily have to be friends with the person you report to, having an uncomfortable relationship with each other is counterproductive to teambuilding. Here are some ideas to help you understand and deal with a difficult boss.


1. Stay professional

As hard as it is when your boss is picky, petty, or even a bully, psychologist Denise Taylor says that it’s important to never react emotionally (i.e. with anger and/or tears). Instead, remain calm and professional.

If professionalism isn’t possible, the next most important thing to remember is to not say anything you might regret. Your job is way more important than an argument that could’ve been resolved through HR or in a private meeting with your manager.

According to Andrew Fennell, director of StandOut CV, there will be times when you clash with other people in the workplace. Whether it’s your boss or another colleague, the best course of action is always diplomacy.

He says, “Remind yourself (and them) that you need to work together in order to achieve common goals, such as delivering work or helping customers.”

2. Be empathetic

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another. In this situation, try to imagine if you were your boss.

Think about what he may be dealing with, personally or professionally, that may factor in on how he treats his subordinates. Is he constantly working long hours? Does he have tight deadlines, or maybe a difficult boss himself?

Even though you may not get your manager to open up about his struggles to you, placing yourself in his shoes can help you understand their circumstances and behaviors better.

A related step that you can take is to consider whether you may be doing things that set your boss off. Kevin Daum, Inc. magazine author, recommends trying to give “extra effort towards measurable items that you both agree upon and see if you are rewarded.” This could include coming into work a few minutes early or improving your efficiency at work (better and faster outputs).

Get to know your boss well so that you can manage him better. By exercising empathy, you may even get them to your side once they realize that you are on theirs.

3. Document everything

Keep a written record of all your interactions with your supervisor—be it tasks assigned or completed, feedback, or requests. You may even want to take note of your boss’ verbal criticisms or details of his negative behaviors towards you. If your manager gives instructions verbally, create a paper trail yourself by writing him an email that outlines the discussion to ensure you heard everything correctly.

Documenting gives you coverage, and you’ll have written proof for when your boss questions or criticizes your work. Taylor also says that your documentation will be invaluable for when you decide to take things further such as escalating matters to HR.

Remember, however, that should it become necessary to present your evidence to another person, organizational consultant, Anna Carroll, recommends pointing to evidence of direct experiences and avoiding personal attacks.

People Handling Skills CTA Banner

4. Talk to your boss

As with any interpersonal issue, the best way to resolve matters is to talk it out in an environment that feels safe for both parties.

Before you talk to your boss, however, Daum recommends studying the conflicts between the two of you—then draft solutions to the problems for yourself as well as your boss.

If there are solutions that you can execute yourself, do them and see if improvements happen. If not, schedule a meeting with your boss to try and communicate ways so that you can work better together.

During your private meeting, tell your boss what you need from him in terms of direction, feedback, and support. Always be polite and communicate what you need from him, as detailing the things that make him a “bad boss” is counterproductive.

Be in a spirit of inquiry as well and ask your boss how you can help him reach his goals. Be ready to listen and learn from him.

5. Take it to HR

If you’ve taken all the steps and you still find yourself in a toxic relationship with your manager, it may be time to take the matter to either to your boss’ boss or human resources.

How they deal with the issue may be confidential, and you won’t hear about it, but try to allow some time to pass for their actions to make an impact.

6. Start looking for other options

If you feel that your boss is simply not going to change, but you still want to work with your current company, try to get transferred to another department. However, if a transfer is unavailable, you may need to start looking elsewhere.

Having an unhealthy relationship with a person you have to deal with regularly can affect your own well-being, and no one at work should be making you feel so unhappy to the point where you are dreading going to the office every day.

Start looking for other options while you are still employed. During your search, Daum says to “find a place that is a culture fit and makes you happy to go to work every day.”

Try to get an insight on how things are done in a potential employer, what the day-to-day life of the job looks like, and the management style of the person-in-charge.


In the workplace, it’s not always possible to agree or get on with everybody. While it can be frustrating that your most difficult work relationship is with the person you report to, know that you are not alone in your struggle and that many people have—and will—encounter a bad boss at some point in their career.

Moreover, dealing with a difficult boss can actually help you grow as a person, as you learn to become more in control of your emotions and more diplomatic and empathetic towards others, especially in a professional environment.


Leave a reply

Experience the Guthrie-Jensen Advantage today.

Inquire Now