zen habits : breathe

Five Strategies for Surviving a Tough Boss

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jerry Roberts of CareerJolt.net.

Creating a solid working relationship with a difficult supervisor is possible but not necessarily easy.

Trying to write a definitive blog post about how to handle a tough boss is a difficult task. A lot of big books have been published on this topic and the issue is as contentious today as ever.

That said, I’ll guide you on a brief journey that will reveal a set of strategies which have worked for others in providing some relief, and a path to progress. Before we venture toward that solution we need to deal with a couple of things.

Strategy is more useful than emotion
Calling your boss a monster and blaming him for all that is wrong with your life may be recreational and even therapeutic, but it does nothing to improve your situation. Only clear-headed strategy and a defined set of tactics will do that.

Should you stay?
In my nearly 15 years of dealing with workplace issues I’ve had a number of people complain about their boss, but rarely has it come to the point where a worker is completely distraught and feeling trapped. If that’s where you are my initial advice is to change jobs.

I understand if your present financial circumstances make it impossible to leave your current position, but you can certainly start the planning process. If your job is ruining your life it’s not worth hanging onto. Making less money may be a hardship at the beginning of such a change, but eventually you’ll replace the lost earnings and be happier.

It should go without saying that if your boss is guilty of sexual misconduct or has made you a target of continual psychological cruelty, you need to get out of there or report him to his superiors. Obviously, this doesn’t include criticizing you for repeatedly coming in late or saying that your work isn’t any good.

Okay, now it’s time to get our head around a few key points that will help us as we move forward.

Bad bosses are a minority
There are bad and mean bosses. Some have egos that need their own zip codes. They are a minority, just like great bosses. The vast majority — probably 90 percent — are in between. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes incompetent, mostly just average and decent people who are struggling to survive and feel overburdened most of the time. Just like us.

Managers also have issues to get off their chest
In fairness, plenty of managers are frustrated with the quality of work people turn in, and also what they see as indifference. I’ve heard many complain that selfishness and poor attitudes are rampant.

Too many people bring their body to work but the mind is elsewhere. You didn’t take the job, telling the boss, “I’ll get work done when I can, but my main objective is to connect with people online and have a cool time.”

Take the wallet test. if it was your money being spent what would you want — an honest day’s work or to have to tell people to put away their Crackberry and get off Twitter and Facebook?

Your boss may also have problems with his boss. Maybe he’s under extreme pressure to deliver results, or isn’t being supported, or was promised the moon and stars when he took the job and later discovered he was lied to. Maybe his personal life is in shambles.

What I’m getting at is that you probably don’t have all the answers for why your manager is hard to get along with. He may well just be a total jerk and unsuited for supervision of any kind — and that’s the whole explanation —but chances are good that there’s more going on than that.

Be honest: Are you a part of the problem?
Could you be contributing to the stress? Are you just an innocent bystander here, or have you done your share to fan the flames of discontent? Are you meeting stated expectations and do you do everything you can to strengthen the team?

One of the most difficult things for anyone is to be objective about their performance, and especially their personality in the workplace. If you’re open to possible criticism, you might want to ask a couple of impartial coworkers how they judge your work and demeanor.

I worked as a regional manager for a man who I said would have qualified for the bad boss hall of fame. I despised him. His other managers were certainly wary of him, but none felt as I did — and I was shocked. They weren’t stupid and didn’t seem mentally unstable, so I had to conclude that I shared some responsibility for a bad relationship.

Now let’s take a look at some of the strategies for dealing with a bad boss:

Strategy 1: Prepare for engagement
If you’re staying on the payroll and even if you find your boss detestable and devoid of any socially redeeming value, you’re still going to have to find a way to work with him. That means squaring your head with the process. You’ll need to find something about him that allows you to tolerate his weaknesses and let the rest of it slide.

Even the worst of managers have good, sometimes great qualities. If you can kick your ego to the curb and allow yourself to appreciate this person for what he does well — and block out those things he does to drive you crazy — you’re on your way.

Do you share interest in a sports team or hobby? Dig a little and make an effort to connect with him. You may be surprised to find a human being under the mean boss costume.

Whether or not you hit it off in this manner, you need to mentally and emotionally accept him and move forward.

Strategy 2: Take a 5-minute meeting
To know where you stand with your supervisor give a handwritten note (not e-mail) to request a short meeting. “I need your help on something important. Can you give me five minutes?” is enough. Don’t be specific here. Curiosity works in your favor.

When you get into the meeting, you want to accomplish three things:

  1. Get the manager’s opinion of the quality of your work
  2. Make it clear that you’re excited about your job
  3. Show that you’re willing to step up and do more

Say something like this:

1. “Thanks for giving me the time. In order to take my work to the next level I need your opinion on how I’m doing and if there’s something specific you think I can work on to improve.”

Why? This shows that you respect his opinion. Take notes so your boss will know you feel his time is important and don’t challenge his positions at this time. If he questions your productivity that may be his honest perception. You’ll change that in this sequence of strategies, but not by arguing. Just listen and write.

When he’s done giving his opinion, immediately request another 5-minute meeting a month out to judge progress. Don’t leave without setting a day and time.

2. “I’m excited about (current project or initiative), and the overall direction that we’re headed.”

Most bosses think in stereotypes, just like most everybody else. It’s human nature. Unless you stand out and show an upbeat attitude, it’s easy to just see a body in front of you and not attach any particular value, or judge you as indifferent. If you’re not excited about anything you’re involved with at work, maybe the boss isn’t your basic problem.

3. “If I come up with a little free time can I come back and discuss a side project I’ve been thinking about?”

Why? Nothing is nearer and dearer to a supervisor’s heart than having a worker volunteer for an extra assignment. Every employer has orphaned projects that sit around in a neglected state. Ask admin staff what these are and pick one that will both benefit the organization and get you some widespread visibility. Then nail it.

One of two things will happen
There are really only two possible outcomes here. One, the boss will refuse to go along with your effort to improve and even take on additional responsibilities — and may even be a jerk about it. If it goes down like this I’d get out of there as soon as my finances or other considerations would allow. This scenario is possible, but I think improbable.

I think it’s far more likely that your boss will be intrigued by your initiative and at least a bit curious to see what will happen. If it was me I’d be thinking that I have nothing to lose and maybe a key player to gain, that I could advance the team without recruitment costs and adding a new salary. I don’t see a downside.

Strategy 3: Followup meetings must show progress
The first meeting was to get both you and the boss on the same page. Subsequent sessions are to monitor your advancement. If your supervisor is going along with this, he has “bought in” to the program and has a vested interest in seeing you succeed.

I wouldn’t wait the full 30 days before interacting with him again. Ask questions and show incremental progress, so the project and you remain top of mind.

If the second meeting goes well don’t skip a beat, push to schedule the sessions on a regular basis: “This is valuable for me, how about us getting together for a few minutes each Tuesday at 3:15?”

Strategy 4: Find a mentor
Regardless of the type of work you do, there are people who will gladly share their knowledge to help you do it better. Maybe it’s a senior worker on your team, or somebody who has retired. It could be a top performer who worked for your competition, or someone you’ll find on a forum that deals with your industry. Somebody is out there with the capacity and willingness to help you. Find them.

A mentor can be an effective sounding board For not just technical issues, but surviving the workplace. Many successful people have used them and still do.

Strategy 5: Food can be a great equalizer
Don’t ask me about the psychology behind it but the act of sharing food can rip away mistrust and get us to open up a little to others. I’ve seen walls between people melt away over a meal. Even if you don’t think he’d accept, ask the boss to join you the next time you and your friends are ordering takeout if you’re working late, or grabbing a bite together at quitting time.

Keep inviting until he accepts. Being a boss can be a lonely gig. Just being invited means that somebody else thinks you’re okay. Send that message.

You may have noticed that I didn’t suggest taking the boss out for a few beers. Alcohol is truth serum. I’ve personally witnessed a couple of people say things at “happy hour” that resulted in great unhappiness the next day. Nobody ever gets in trouble because they can’t hold their pizza.

Just consider it a given: Combining alcohol and the boss is risky.

People don’t change easily. That’s true of our boss and true of us, too. Real change comes through life experiences that shake our world and make us look at ourselves through new eyes. If your boss is a tough customer he may well remain so. However, you can help alter his behavior.

One of the earliest lessons I learned is that the easiest path to get what I want is to help others get what they want. If your boss sees working with you as a way to boost numbers or provide another meaningful benefit, then he’s likely to go along with it. At that point it’s up to you to improve his opinion of you and your value to the organization.

In my career — with one notable exception — when my boss knew that I approached my job in a businesslike manner and fully intended to push him to help me be successful, I rarely had much of the negative stuff to deal with.

When I stopped seeing my boss as good or bad and focused on what I could control — whether they viewed me as an asset or liability — things got a lot simpler.

What did I miss? I welcome your comments and hope to learn from you.

To read more career advice from Jerry Roberts, check out his blog, CareerJolt.net, or subscribe to his feed.

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