Managing Up: How to Handle a Difficult Boss

career advice Dec 06, 2020
angry professional woman

I've had the benefit of working with some amazing leaders and some not-so-inspiring ones throughout my career. Being a student of organizational leadership (and have a master's degree to show for it), combined with my 40 years of first-hand experience, has provided invaluable insight into what good leadership looks like and what not to do when managing people.

But what do you do when it's not your leadership that's in question but that of your manager? That's when it's time to develop your leadership skills and start managing up. People don't leave bad jobs; they leave bad managers. Everyone wants to feel valued, trusted, and respected for what they do, so if you have a boss that can't provide an environment where these things are present, it makes it really challenging to love what you do. 

While having a healthy, positive relationship with your boss makes your work life much easier, it's ultimately about how you respond and manage yourself and the situation. No matter what type of manager you have, some skills are universally important for you to develop to serve you well throughout your career. 

Also, don't get lulled into the bliss of having a great boss or a friendly relationship. You want to be careful about hooking your future to someone else. If there's a change in the organizational dynamic or your manager's role is on the chopping block, or if they decide to leave and ask that you go with them, your relationship could dramatically change if you decide or are being asked to stay while you're manager is on the way out. I've been in that situation, and my friendly relationship turned sour when I negotiated a better position for myself as she was exiting the organization.

To prevent a bad boss from sucking the life out of you and an otherwise fantastic job, I want to share five ways you can practice self-leadership and effectively deal with a bad boss.

Also, watch my Career Segment on this topic on AM Northwest below.

1. Know how you like to work.

I've often advocated for clarity around who you are as a foundational step to finding a career you love, and being armed with that knowledge will help you avoid these types of situations. Have a good idea of how you like to work and the environments in which you thrive. This way, you'll have a better chance of creating a good relationship from the start.

Ask yourself: 

  • What type of supervision works for me (ongoing, hands-off, somewhere in between)?
  • Will you be working in your strengths? Do you know what they are?
  • How do you communicate? Do you know how to work with varying communication styles?

The best way to manage a bad boss is to not have one in the first place, so know how you work before you get there. Interview your new boss to make sure your new work environment is the right one for you. 

2. Know what motivates your boss.

Consider what's on your boss's plate. The better you understand what's going on with them, the better positioned you'll be to deliver results, manage your relationship and expectations. Fundamentally, find out what's important to them and what they care about.

Ask yourself:

  • What drives them?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • What pressures are they experiencing from organizational leadership?
  • What are their strengths, and how can you use yours to augment where they lack?
  • What training or support are they receiving?

When you're clear on what's going on with them and the things they're dealing with, you can better align your work to be a source of support and not frustration.

3. Don't try to fix them.

I want to state this as plainly and clearly as possible: the only person you can control is YOU. If you've been spending your precious and time and energy tell them how they're behaving is wrong, telling them what they should or shouldn't be doing, or worse, acting out to demonstrate your resistance, you've only succeeded at causing yourself more stress and frustration then your boss. The key is to learn how to separate yourself from your boss's actions. In other words, how to accept the truth that their behavior has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their insecurities, self-doubts, fears, values, belief systems, and faulty narratives on leadership and management. 

When you're in the midst of a manager behaving badly, it's hard not to take it personally. But when you do, you'll create a vicious cycle that will serve to reinforce your deteriorating relationship. By taking your manager's behavior personally, you're more likely to let it impact who you are, compromise your own values and belief in yourself, and succumb to resentment, which will ultimately impact your performance. See where I'm going with this?

You also don't want to spend your time complaining or bad-mouthing your boss to others. It only demonstrates YOUR lack of control and self-management. 

Don't try to fix your manager; instead, take the high road. Spend time learning how to up-level your emotional intelligence, self-efficacy, and leadership. Keep your focus on protecting your brand reputation. 

4. Get super clear on roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

If there's a disconnect between you and your manager, it could because there's been a lack of communication or understanding about roles and expectations. Clarity conversations around roles and responsibilities are easier to have because you can refer to an organizational sanctioned job description that details your requirements. Conversations around expectations can be rather challenging because this usually centers are an interpretation of not what has to be done but how it gets done.

A manager that has previously held your role, or if it was held by someone who fulfilled the role in a way that your manager loved, there may be an expectation that you come in and carry out the role in the same way. Managing other's expectations is hard, especially when they were never communicated. If you're in this type of situation, use this as your opportunity to showcase your leadership. 

  • Schedule a time to chat with your manager about role clarity.
  • Be prepared to share how you envision your role and approach to achieve results.
  • Ask for their insight and understanding. 
  • Agree on how you'll carry out your responsibilities.
  • Get clear about any performance issues.
  • Send a follow-up email outlining your understanding of the conversation and any agreements reached, and what will happen if there's an additional breakdown in communication.

It's important that you not be intimidated or fearful of speaking up where you see there's an issue. This is good leadership. Just because your manager didn't think of it doesn't mean you can't step up and showcase your lead and manage. Let your boss know that what's most important is everyone's success.

5. Know when to call it.

If, after all your efforts, it's just not working, the situation becomes too toxic, or your manager is simply irredeemable, then plan your exit sooner than later. As the song goes, "you've got to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em."  

Walking away from a bad situation after you've done all you could do should never be construed as you being a quitter or running away. At this stage, you can be proud of the work you put in and the lessons learned that you'll be able to apply in your new job or when leading your own team. 

It's important that you not allow yourself to be beaten up or beat down to the point of doubting yourself, your talents and abilities, or developing PTSD as a result of the experience.  If necessary, file a complaint because the organization must know they have a bad representation of their values, mission, and brand. It's up to them to take whatever rehabilitative steps they deem necessary. Your focus is to get and find the right place for you.

Get your resignation game plan together, then do your due diligence to find the right and best next step for you and your career. You never want to run away from something; you always want to position yourself to step into what's right for you. 

Listen, managing up does not mean being fake or sucking up. It means operating in integrity, showcasing your leadership, and becoming a valued member of your organization. You can do that by being your best and doing your best, regardless of who manages you.

You can watch my segment on AM Northwest here: 

If you need support managing your boss or yourself, let's connect.



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