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The art of managing difficult bosses


A few years ago, whilst working as a senior manager in the public sector, I had a new boss whom I found very difficult to work with. I had been extremely fortunate up to that point and, despite a long career, had never encountered problems with bosses before and therefore found this very upsetting. It became apparent, very quickly, that I was not alone in experiencing these difficulties and indeed found out that this boss had a reputation for upsetting her staff. Her interpersonal skills were severely lacking and in fact she was verging on being a bully.

I have to confess that I don’t think I handled the situation very well. I took her criticisms personally. I became unhappy at work and my confidence in my own ability started to diminish. Her bullying had a big affect not just on me but the rest of her senior management team and nobody was doing anything about it. That year, when I had my appraisal, I could not hold my feelings in any longer and told her exactly what I thought of her management style. It was not a pleasant meeting and ended up with her shouting and screaming at me! Did my challenging my boss change her behaviour? Not a bit! A few years later, at a conference, I got speaking to delegates who worked for the organisation my ex boss now worked for and nothing had changed – she was still a bully.

Recently I have been working with a coaching client who was in a similar situation. Louise (name changed) loved her job and had been happy for years when she got a new boss who was making her
and her colleagues lives miserable with his bullying tactics. Louise was so upset that she had started to apply for other jobs and had come to coaching both to explore if there was anything she could do
to make her current work situation any less stressful as well as seeking help with interview skills.

Working with Louise reminded me how I felt all these years ago. Since then I have learnt more about the art of acceptance which I think is so eloquently set out in the serenity prayer as follows:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Neither Louise nor I were able to change our boss’s behaviour but we were able to change how we responded and we did have a number of options, for example:

  • Learn ways to better manage your boss. The secret is to “manage up” without them ever realizing you are doing it. So rather than think of your boss as your boss, think of them as a
    difficult client – one you have to figure out how to work with if you want to get ahead, even if you’d rather not.
  • If dealing with a micromanager, head off your boss’ requests by anticipating them and getting things done before they come to you.
  • Make sure to document important interactions with your boss—be it requests or criticisms— so you can refer back to them if need be.
  • If your boss is the type who gives you directions verbally, follow up with an email that outlines the discussion to ensure that you heard everything correctly.
  • If in a conflicting situation with your boss make sure to give it some time before reacting. Perhaps talk it over with a trusted colleague before responding​. If you are short on people to confide in at work, then you can share anonymously in our community.
  • If thinking of changing jobs, do your research ahead of time to make sure you’re not getting into another situation with a less-than-ideal boss. [Feeling trapped? how to break free from your unhappy job]

Both Louise and I learnt a valuable lesson in the art of acceptance when trying to cope with our difficult bosses. None of us can change how others behave. We can only change our responses to
their behaviour.


If the workplace is causing you to lose confidence or to feel stressed, then join now and gain access to expert videos and a range of supportive and empowering tools.


Pat Hayden

Pat trained with the Institute of Leadership and Management and was awarded the ILM level 7 Certificate in Executive Coaching. She is registered with the Life Coach Directory, as well as being a member of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), the recognised professional body for business coaches. Pat specialises in career and work life balance issues. She is a volunteer at the Shaw Trust / Careers development Group (CDG) and provides coaching to long-term unemployed job seekers, helping them to improve their confidence and motivation, their CV's and interview skills. Pat has an IDeA Certificate in Leadership and regularly attends the London Coaching Network which helps her to remain up to date with developments in the coaching world.


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