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Most of my professional life has been devoted to studying/working with inspiring leaders. However, once in a while I hear about difficult bosses that cause personal pain.
Some changes are almost impossible to make, like where the boss,
Uses the ideas of others to forward his/her own career
Steps on people on the way to the top
Frequently breaks promises
Engages in downright emotionally abusive behavior.
However, there is a category of difficult boss that you think you can’t manage but you can change. These include where the boss
Has a communication style different to yours
Is an introvert and you are an extravert
Comes from a different generation
Sees more of the bigger picture than you do
In both instances, where the change seems out of your hands, remember, you are in control of your response to the difficult situation.
This article is not intended to reinforce a “victim” mentality that leaves people feeling helpless. Nor is it about putting the entire blame on a boss. It’s about learning skills to manage difficult relationships up the leadership chain.
What You Cannot Change
Better ways to respond to difficult situations from our leaders without stepping on land mines is to start telling ourselves,
- “I am worth more than this”
There comes a moment when we wake up to the fact that we can do without highly negative interactions. This awareness may lead to a change of job, new assignment in another department, or learning ways to set limits on how much we allow others to use us.
- “I will update my resume”
A history of abuse in the workplace leads people to believe that they are worth very little in the eyes of others. This is especially true if the workplace situation is a reenactment of childhood trauma. But not every workplace is toxic. There are places where we can express our talents that have deeply engrained humanistic values and genuinely seek to make a positive contribution in their world. Find these places, network with the leaders, and start looking for new pastures for yourself.
What You Can Change
A tweak in our communication style and/or an attitude adjustment can turn a negative situation around. We can accomplish this by saying to ourselves,
1. “I will turn this adversity into a positive outcome”
She was a senior executive in a government agency. Her history of abuse at the hands of her boss was as long as her arm. However the economic environment was rough and she could not afford to change jobs. So she made a decision to empower other women in her organization by mentoring them, organizing conferences on inspirational leadership, and joining community organizations where she could exercise positive leadership.
- “I will to push back”
“Power-hungry thugs aren’t appeased if you try to show them how nonthreatening and reasonable you are.” - David Brooks-NY Times
There are wise and effective ways that one can set limits with the bullies of life. Learning to say, “Back off” or “Your behavior is unacceptable” may seem awfully risky to some people especially if you have not tried this direct approach before. But fighting fire with fire is often the only language that some leaders understand. Talk to some of your peers and see how drawing a line in the sand with this tough character has worked in the past. Then try it for yourself but first get a few powerful sponsors to cover your back.
- “I will adapt my style”
He was a very effective senior manager adept at telling colorful stories when he made reports to his boss. However his manager was very much a bottom line leader that wanted a summary report in 1-2 minutes. The boss also needed a daily update on the status of various projects. The manager tried to leave long voice messages. However, he soon found that when he adapted to his boss’ style that he found his responses more accommodating and supportive.
We do not have to throw up our hands in desperation when we run into difficulties with leaders. In the end, it is not a matter of how they respond but the healthier choices we make.