How to Survive and Succeed While Working for a Difficult Manager

Employees look on as manager critiques their work
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In leadership workshops, I run a two-part exercise that first has the group identify and capture all of the behaviors of managers and senior leaders they hold in high regard. The input is always thoughtful and includes the expected comments of:

  • Treat people with respect
  • Back words with actions
  • Offer constructive input and coaching
  • Provide developmental opportunities
  • Do not micromanage

…and many other positive behaviors.

The exercise flows nicely, the flip-charts fill and then get taped to the wall and people exchange stories of great leaders who have helped them during their journeys.

After the discussion on effective leaders has run its course, I flip the question around and ask the teams to describe and capture the behaviors of managers and leaders they view as difficult to work for. (I soften the question a bit, because it never seems appropriate to ask people about managers who were/are real jerks!) After a few seconds, the energy level in the room rises along with the decibel level and you can practical feel the heat from the scribes and their red markers as they struggle to capture the group’s descriptions of the difficult managers and leaders they have encountered in their careers.

It turns out that most of us have worked for a difficult manager at some point in our careers. You know the one. He or she was the demanding force of nature-focused exclusively on results and numbers and not inclined to offer approval or show any signs of personal caring under any circumstances.

This difficult manager operates in a state of constant disapproval, and often practices micromanaging behaviors that exacerbate the stress in our working environment.

Note: I distinguish between a difficult manager and a bully boss. The latter is abusive, the former just a pain in our necks to navigate on a daily basis. Our focus here is on the difficult but not abusive manager.

While it is absolutely not fun working for these individuals, we all encounter them, and in most instances, we are forced to figure out how to survive for a period of time. The question and focus for the remainder of this article is: How do we survive and even thrive while working for the difficult manager?

9 Ideas to Help You Survive and Succeed With Your Difficult Manager:

1. Your patience is a powerful ally. The difficult manager’s behaviors bring out some of our own worst behaviors. While it is tempting to snap back or display anger or frustration with the manager’s approach or seeming lack of appreciation for your efforts in a given situation, a better tactic when you feel your emotions boiling over is to bite your tongue and count to 10, 100 or 1,000 depending upon the stress level. Difficult managers I encountered, view these outbursts of emotion as signs of immaturity or even incompetence. Do not pour fuel on a difficult situation by adding your own emotions.

2. Keep the excuses and problems to yourself. Demanding managers often are monolingual. They only speak one language: the language of results. They don’t care about problems, excuses or obstacles. They expect their team members to run through problems toward results with the same attitude.

While all of us understand that “stuff happens,” do not expect any sympathy for shortfalls due to extenuating circumstances. To them, it’s all about the scoreboard, not the effort.

3. Avoid joining the gossip thread. The proverbial watercooler gossip critiquing your difficult manager’s behaviors is a great place to avoid. There are no circumstances you will encounter when it is good to badmouth the boss. You should always assume that the gossip and identity of the gossip mongers will make it back to the boss.

4. Turn the tables and figure out what really drives your manager. Is she focused on getting to the next run on the corporate ladder?

Is he a long-time employee who has dedicated his life to the firm? Is your area under the microscope by senior management and results are necessary for survival? While many managers are not open about what drives them in general or at a moment in time, it is your job to crack this code. Once you understand your difficult manager’s true interests you can work to identify opportunities to support those interests.

5. Volunteer for the dirty work. There are always lingering, vexing problems that exist somewhere in the gray zone between functions in an organization. To the extent that solving the gray zone issues supports your manager’s agenda, jump in and organize the resources needed to fix what’s broken. While the boss might not verbalize appreciation, you will most definitely be perceived as more valuable to the team.

6. Do not assume you are not appreciated. The most difficult driving managers value people they can count on to get results. They might not show it or verbalize it but you should not assume your participation is not viewed as important. Don’t preoccupy on earning someone else’s approval—focus on doing everything you can to learn and develop while driving great results.

7. Use reverse psychology on micromanaging behaviors. If your manager insists on looking over your shoulder, use questions to learn more about how he/she developed expertise in this area? Ask: “You are clearly an expert on this process. How did you develop these skills? Why do you believe your approach is so effective? How can I learn more from you about other processes in our group?” Meet the behavior with your own unique behavior of asking questions that appeal to his/her expertise. Showcase your willingness to serve as the apprentice. It might be uncomfortable, however, it is better than boiling over from this constant shoulder gazing.

8. Do not believe you need to become friends with your boss. Many prefer to operate at a very safe distance from those they work with. Your unwelcome attempts at asserting friendship will just aggravate your boss and the situation. Find your friends elsewhere.

9. Share genuine appreciation for the lessons you are learning. It is disarming to laser-focused people to be told they are appreciated. If you are genuinely learning something in your role, offer a thank you for the opportunity. You might just see this emotional iceberg of a manager melt a bit.

The Bottom Line:

We all have to work for someone, and occasionally that someone is demanding and difficult. If you like your work and your coworkers, don’t let the difficult manager drive you away. Instead, adjust your attitude, redouble your patience and focus on the opportunity to contribute and grow in an environment where performance is the only thing that counts. It might seem sterile and it might not be your preferred approach, but it can be a powerful learning experience.

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