How to deal with a problem boss

Difficult managers are ubiquitous in the workplace. Karen Hainsworth finds out how to handle them
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The Independent Online

Unfortunately, most employees feel that they have to put up with poor management and will often fume in silence. "If you're feeling anxiety or constant irritation or rage in a professional setting, something is very wrong," says relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, who suggests the situation needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later. "If it's your first or second job, do an awful lot of checking with other people before you label a boss difficult," she says. "Others may have a problem with the same person, in which case you can talk to them about how they handle it. Ask the most senior and approachable person, and rather than saying, 'My boss is a complete cow, what can I do?' say, 'May I speak to you in confidence. I'm finding difficulty dealing with her. What's your advice?' They may come up with great strategies.

"If you've got a few jobs under your belt and you've always had a difficult boss, look to yourself. It probably says something about you and the way you are handling jobs. Maybe your expectations aren't aligned, perhaps you're not asking for what you need, or you're not being professionally assertive enough."

Being confident about your position is crucial when it comes to dealing with an awkward manager, says Quilliam. "Once you've recognised a pattern in their behaviour, aim to present it to them in a professional way," she says, but emphasises that it should be done in the least threatening manner possible. "If you're dealing with a very controlling boss, you might say, 'I've been here six months, and these are the jobs I can do well. Do you agree?' Reassure them by providing evidence if necessary. Then tell them about the jobs you really do need help with."

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says: "It's amazing what a normal face-to-face conversation can achieve." He believes it's important to raise a grievance with your boss initially rather than immediately taking it further up the hierarchy.

"Your managers may not know that there is a problem," he says. "If you feel you're not being treated properly, raise it on a one-to-one basis in a quiet moment. Once you start losing your temper, blaming or criticising, it's a slippery slope and neither party is going to be willing to look at the other person's point of view objectively." Whatever you do, don't allow problems to fester, he says. As the situation escalates, views become polarised and things are more difficult to resolve.

"If you've tried the conversational approach and you're still having problems, it might be worth having an informal chat with HR," says Willmott. "They may come up with solutions or have a quiet word with your manager, which could head off a formal grievance."

If all else fails, legislation brought in last October supports a three-step grievance procedure. Your complaint must be stated formally in a letter, the matter is then discussed in a meeting and, where appropriate, an appeals procedure is conducted if either party is unhappy with the outcome. "The aim is to try to find a way forward," says Willmott. If the problem is one of a personality clash, it may be a case of moving the individual to another team with another manager.

If things get that far and it's obvious differences cannot be resolved, try not to blame yourself, says Quilliam. "Even if other people aren't having the same difficulties, it doesn't mean you're at fault," she says.

At this point, you may want to swallow your professional pride and recognise it's a situation that's just too difficult to handle. "If it's genuinely a case of our two personalities not fitting together, it's good to walk away just as you would four or five months into a relationship that wasn't working."

Your dignity remains intact and you can move on to more fruitful relationships, where the challenges come from the job rather than the impossible personalities around you.

Further information: 'What Makes People Tick' by Susan Quilliam; published by HarperCollins

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