Note: A law firm associate originally asked me how to deal with a difficult partner. But since posting my article answering her question, I received several emails from my readers about the broader application of my advice to anyone with a terrible manager.
So for anyone dealing with a mercurial manager, the article below is for you……
It isn’t easy working for a boss who is unreasonable, hostile and unpredictable. And for those of you who do, I suspect anxiety and dread accompany your morning coffee each workday. Being in such a negative environment is not healthy or sustainable…for anyone. So moving on to greener pastures is likely the wisest move. As part of your action plan, assess all the factors that are virtuous about your employment: Perhaps you are receiving great experience. Perhaps the money is good. Perhaps it seems too soon to leave. Perhaps a job search is daunting… and balance these factors with the negatives. Then see where the chips fall to determine whether you stay or go.
In the interim, what’s the best way to deal with a volatile boss? Coping with these types of personalities is a bit like playing dodge ball so you’ll need to approach it as such. Below is the path to succeed:
Manage Your Expectations.
No matter what you do, how you behave or how perfect you are, your manager will not change his/her behavior. More importantly, you will never please him/her. This is not about You…it’s about your boss. So you need to manage your expectations and realize that your situation won’t change unless you leave or your boss does. By understanding and accepting these facts, you can shift your goals as you execute your plan to “deal” with this individual.
When a person is unreasonable, hostile and unpredictable, s/he often rewrites history to rationalize the behavior, avoid responsibility and get what s/he wants. In addition, this personality type tends to have control issues. In order to deal with your boss more effectively, over-communication is the best strategy. This doesn’t mean you should email your boss when you are taking a bathroom break, but providing weekly status reports on your projects, asking questions when something isn’t as clear and checking in to see if you are on the right track or if a direction change is needed. Email is a great avenue to communicate because it’s easy, fast and in writing. So if s/he’s trying to rewrite history, the documentation will be there to take the wind from his/her sails. In addition, if your boss is in the loop and confident that you are on the ball s/he’ll breathe a bit easier, which could calm the beast.
Mercurial boss or not, reliability is one of the most important qualities to possess as a professional (and human being for that matter). So do what you say you are going to do…and deliver. You won’t be perfect, but if your boss knows s/he can count on you, s/he’ll be a happier camper and his/her behavior will reflect it.
This goes hand in hand with reliability and is equally important – as a general proposition and particularly to your boss. This personality type won’t just want your quick action…it demands it. So take inventory of your responsiveness to determine where you fall on the spectrum. How quickly to do respond to calls, emails, deadlines? Are you lickety split or do you drag your feet? Do you respond to all communications and requests or just the ones you deem important? If you’re not sure, ask a colleague or friend for honest feedback. If you see room for improvement, improve.
Keep Work Product Quality High.
You’re boss’s expectations are sky-high –and likely unreasonable. If they are, know that you won’t be able to meet them no matter how magnificent your work is (this falls into the manage your expectations category). All you can do is your best – and that is exactly what you should do. Don’t take shortcuts or have a “good enough” mentality. Take pride in your work and do a good job. You’ll feel good about yourself for doing so regardless of what your boss says or how s/he acts.
Stay Cool and Roll with the Punches.
When your boss has an episode, take a deep breath and keep your cool. His/her behavior is about your boss…not you. So try not to absorb it. Instead, shrug it off and move on to your next task. If your boss experiences you as calm, cool and collected when drama ensues, s/he’ll be less likely to throw a fit in the future. If you don’t control your emotions, they will build up and you’ll do or say something that could compromise your career.
Maintain a Positive Attitude.
Working for a difficult person is not a walk in the park. So maintaining a positive attitude is way easier said than done, I know. But studies have shown that people who are “up” are healthier and happier – especially in trying circumstances. They also have better coping mechanisms with stress and can deal with difficult people more effectively. If it’s difficult to muster up a smile, reflect on what you can be grateful for: you’ve worked hard and earned a prestigious academic degree. You are employed and an independent person who is supporting him/herself. You are building the foundation for your career. You have your health. You are an insightful person who is taking proactive steps to deal with a difficult situation. These might seem like pointless things to tell yourself, but they are not. These are exactly the kind of things successful people and high achievers think when trying to make the best of a challenging situation. This doesn’t mean you should ignore or rationalize behavior that treats you poorly. But if you choose to stay in your situation, a positive attitude will help a lot and may rub off a little on your boss.
It’s unfortunate for anyone who works with an extremely difficult person. This is a time where professionals should enjoy their careers and should be excited about their employers. But if this is not the case for you, think more seriously about leaving your employer and seek a healthier environment. Life is too short – and given the amount of time you spend at the office, you should work with people who treat you with respect. So start seeking new a position now. But in the interim, implement the strategies above to make your situation more tolerable – and you’ll emerge from the experience a better professional.