How to Deal with a Difficult Boss

The editor and I have been talking and we agreed to a series on ‘how to’ on career development for readers. The idea is to address a topic in each edition. We will provide a few nuggets that you can incorporate into your toolkit of career progress and development. The first one we are looking at today is:

How to deal with a difficult boss

This is so personal I still think about those days with some shivers. Fresh out of the university, top of my class, best graduating student and an award that came with the opportunity to intern with a Big 4 accounting firm in Lagos. I followed through with the recruitment process and I got the offer to start. As far as feeling cool with myself, I had a lot to go on (or so I thought). I resumed on day one all eager to demonstrate intellect and my first series of tasks involved things like ‘bring my laptop’, ‘print the attached documents’ oh and a particular favorite ‘go and get the cheque from the client’ (this always came with a rider – don’t come back to the office without that cheque!). You must be wondering, not much opportunity to demonstrate intellect, right? Then it got worse. A new manager joined the team and he was going to be my primary supervisor. I became his go-to for every errand possible including paying his home utility bills! Those were the days of queuing up outside the multichoice office just to register the invoice after leaving the bank. 

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On the job, he was brilliant. In another world, he would be someone to study and learn from. But there was a side to him that made things just bad. He had a strong ‘me complex’ and had to be the one to shine. Good news flowed through him and he took the credit, mistakes and missed deliverables were never his fault. Somehow, I got the blame. I did not get feedback for work done, instead, I got public dressing downs in the open work area. I remember going home feeling bad. So much for all the best this, best that awards I got! This was a long time ago, and I have learned a few things since then that I’d like to share. 

Deliver Full performance 

Every boss wants employees to deliver and exceed expectations. It should not just be about what you do but how you do it too. In executing your deliverables, take initiative and full ownership of what you have been asked to do. Complete the work, whatever you have to do. The best part of taking on work is the number of things you learn. If the working relationship is bad to make sure your performance is not. You owe it to yourself to do the best every day. Sure, you will make some mistakes but based on the quality of your work a difficult boss will not ignore the performance. Even if he/she does, other people are seeing and experiencing what you do. Which is why you should…

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Build your network of allies

Your allies should be a cross-section of your company and be as diverse as possible. Members of your network will include your peers, your boss’s peers, your boss’s superiors and other members of the organization outside your department. Include members of any 3rd party client group/customers that you regularly interface with. They will all be able to speak to the quality of your work and the attitude you bring. Chances are high that your next project or internal transfer will be as a result of your network. A lot of organizations will rely on manager’s feedback to decide performance but during performance calibration sessions, some other senior managers or peers will be able to speak on your behalf however brief your interaction has been. It is also possible that your current boss does not see some of your best qualities due to prejudice/bias, but members of your network can certainly vouch for you.

Demonstrate empathy

I can hear you say why? Well, the reality is that every boss has their insecurities and areas of improvement. Some are better than the others at hiding it. This results in being ‘difficult’ to cover their inadequacies. In my example, since my manager was new to the company, he struggled to execute certain basic tasks and he just needed someone to show him how. He was just too proud to admit he did not know. Identify the subject areas that your boss tends to ask you to step in and execute. Solve it and make sure he/she has one less thing to worry about. Learn from the moments of conflict and find ways to be proactive to manage future events ahead. Recognize that you will one day be ‘the boss’ and think of what you would like your direct report to be.

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It is very possible you will do your absolute best and be the model employee all managers dream of and you still won’t cut it with this particular boss. Well, you should seek to change when the moment is right. Your performance results, winning attitude will serve you well in another context. It is said if someone does not value your worth, find someone else who will and get them to pay you the right amount for it. The next job could be a transfer to another department or another company entirely. Life is too short to live with a bad boss for most of the active part of your life.

…Until next time

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