What to do when the boss is difficult
By Michelle Singletary
By Michelle Singletary
I once had a boss who had a habit of walking up behind me while I was on the telephone or working at my computer and then just stand there with a notepad in hand until I finished whatever I was doing.
It was so aggravating. I would spend a lot of time turning around to see if she had crept up behind me. When I complained about this to my husband, he suggested I talk to her about how I felt.
"Talk to her?" I said. "I can't do that."
"Why not?" he asked.
I didn't have a good reason.
So I arranged for us to have lunch. I couldn't sleep the night before. But we met, talked and it seems she wasn't intentionally trying to annoy me. She had no idea her behavior was maddening. She apologized and we became good friends.
Maybe what is driving you to distraction at work or causing you to update your resume could be stopped with a conversation or two, says Gil Schwartz, executive vice president of corporate communications at CBS. Schwartz, who writes under the pen name Stanley Bing, is an authority on the nutty behavior of bosses. His book "Crazy Bosses" was last month's Color of Money Book Club selection.
Schwartz joined me online recently to take questions from workers struggling with crazy communication and relationships at work. Schwartz and I saw plenty in our online discussion to confirm the conclusions of the 2007 Job Satisfaction Survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. The survey found that a good relationship with immediate supervisors and communication with senior management ranked among the top five things employees consider necessary to be happy on the job.
From the dozens of questions we received during the discussion, clearly many employees are frustrated with their work situation. I asked Schwartz to answer some questions he couldn't get to during the discussion.
For instance, one person wrote: "How can someone truly and effectively stand up to a bad boss and not risk his or her job? Do you just give up and go find another job?"
"I never believe that giving up and finding a new job is a viable strategy except where actual physical torture is involved, and even then a lawyer instead of a headhunter might be in order," Schwartz said. "To make it in this business world and remain sane, you have to work hard to manage the boss, no matter how crazy that person may be."
To manage a difficult boss, it's critical for an employee to demonstrate high competence, patience and strategic thinking, according to Schwartz.
He says that in the early days on the job, you might have to endure bad behavior. But eventually it may be possible to firmly tell your boss, for example, not to yell or swear at you. He added: "An effective employee can train the boss by establishing certain rational limits on the nutty manager's behavior, just as one would do with a child. It may not work every time. But you'll feel better."
What if you know more than your boss and she takes her inadequacies out on you, as this person indicated: "My boss is new to being a manager and seems really insecure in this new role. This insecurity comes out sometimes as testiness and often in reaction to advice or constructive criticism from staff. Do you have any advice on how to make this situation work?"
Ask how you can help this person with his own difficulties in the job, Schwartz suggests.
"It's not easy being a boss, even if it looks like this guy is in the catbird seat. He feels unequal to the job. Who knows, maybe he is unequal to the job," he said. "The people who help him cope, make him feel more confident, make the decisions he's supposed to be making occasionally, these will become his strong right arm, or left arm, or leg."
Micromanaging was a common complaint.
"Do you have a suggestion for handling a boss that does your work instead of supervising and managing?" one person wanted to know. "My boss was recently promoted from being a regular staff person in another office to being the manager in my office, but she tends to continue doing the staff-type work instead of taking on the big-picture issues of the team."
Schwartz's advice: Have a cup of coffee, put your feet up and let your boss do the work.
"But seriously, why is everybody so afraid to talk with their boss?" he said.
Schwartz knows why, as do I. Many of us are afraid to communicate because we fear an explosive outburst. Or we expect we will just be wasting our time, or else wind up fired for daring to speak up.
"Communication is a two-way street, even with managers, even with crazy managers," Schwartz said.
He's right. And like my husband said, what's the harm in talking?