Wednesday, 28 August 2013

How To Deal With A Difficult Boss...And Keep Your Job


Warning: this post is controversial and might be labelled a ‘bad idea’, but desperate situations often call for drastic actions...

We have all been there...

We have all been in situations whereby we are holding on, by a fragile  thread, to the last shred of composure in our almost-depleted arsenal of survivalist measures. This usually happens when we are given yet another inane directive by our bosses/supervisors/managers which we know, for a glaring fact, is the worst possible 'solution' for the problem. To make matters worse, we would be made accountable for the failure.

Or maybe the overbearing  attitudes  and behaviours  of our bosses/supervisors/managers have not only negatively impacted our performance, (costing us favourable reviews and well-deserved promotions), but have also made going to work a never-ending nightmare from which we are unable to recover.

Worse yet, we have been the butt of crude, racist, sexist, or other discriminatory 'jokes' or the unwilling recipients of humiliating tactics in full view of our colleagues.

The list goes on and on. The unpleasant truth is that at some point in your career, you will get a difficult boss and this is a fact that should not be taken lightly.

By all means, be bold and take a risk: quit that company if you have other options or sufficient savings to fall back on while you search for better alternatives. Or leave if your physical health and emotional well-being are deteriorating rapidly and are leading to hypertension, chronic stress or heart problems. Life is too short to work yourself to an early grave.

Many of us however do not have the 'exit' option to take, despite the general view that employees tend to leave companies predominantly because of a bad boss or supervisor. Decisions for staying in the organisation, even in such a stressful environment of working with a difficult boss, are varied. However, financial pressures,  family obligations, a bad economy and a high rate of unemployment tend to trump most reasons.

Some advice for new entrants -  without the relevant experience, you might find it daunting to handle a difficult boss at your first job. Unfortunately, you might have to 'suck it up' and learn all you can for a year or two. Often this 'baptism by fire' is the quickest way to knowing your strengths and weaknesses; an invaluable lesson for your future career.

Now for the experienced professionals - what should you do if you can't leave and still want to keep your sanity, your income and your self-respect?

Well the tips below might not work for everyone but are worth a read...

1) Safeguard your efforts against failure and cross-check your performance multiple times

There is no way around this point. Know your onions. You would have to work like a horse and become super-competent in your duties. You are responsible for your professional growth.

By virtue of years of experience, you can hone this trait. Do not make it easy for your boss to discredit you or your work. Cross-check facts and figures and verify every single facet of a project or assignment or initiative for which you are responsible. Then do it again. And again. And again. Err on the side of caution. Note that in the final analysis, excellence is hard to ignore.

Have a back-up plan - this could be  a list of other actions you could take in the event that your boss/supervisor/manager frustrates your efforts; is tardy in approving budgets/drafts; is stingy with his recommendations; or is otherwise just being mean, because, well because he can. Arm yourself with options: from the practical to the extreme. There is nothing reassuring about being helpless. Knowledge is power.

Realistically, you would make some mistakes. Be sure to keep them to the barest minimum; try to identify them quickly and make suggestions for appropriate solutions. Do not give your boss the opportunity to exaggerate your 'failures' or to insinuate to Management that you are incompetent or unreliable. Develop a tough skin for caustic berating when you do make mistakes and move swiftly along.

Someone, (whose name I unfortunately cannot recall), once quipped:

“There is nothing wrong with making mistakes;  just don't do them again”.

The issue here of course is making the same mistakes repeatedly.

2) Relegate important information to  written communications

If your boss is truly difficult, it is useful to note that anything he says could, and would be denied if the case escalates and is referred to his superiors. He would not want to lose 'face' and you would be made the scapegoat.

You would thus need to protect your work, your reputation and your integrity.

Verbal communications are quicker for daily operations and for initial discussions but make it a habit to confirm key bits of information in emails. Ensure you save  these emails, along with relevant files/attachments in whatever format, in a private folder, (with encrypted passwords for truly sensitive information), on both your official and private computers. Where applicable, also  keep all paperwork, including receipts, invoices etc. in secure but accessible  folders. In other words, have records for everything.

It is infinitely better to be safe than sorry and those actions would save you a lot of grief at a later date.

Trust me on this.

For the written communications, below are tips to consider:

a) Write the emails only when you are calm so that you could think with a 'clear head'.

b) Keep the emails respectful and very brief, clearly stating in the subject line the purpose for writing them.

For example an email with the subject line:

"Request  for  approval  of  the  guidelines  for  Project  X".

Is self-explanatory and is thus likely to receive prompt attention.

It is also important to ensure you receive a reply via email. For example, you may need to first verbally inform your boss to expect an email about budget approval. After you have sent it, proceed to remind him to kindly respond to your enquiry, to prevent delays in the commencement of the project. Then be patient. He may be tardy but he's no fool: he knows that if you have covered all your bases, (which is evident from your actions), then it would make him look bad to his superiors if he has no excuses for the delay.

Be very careful with the tone in written communications – if poorly handled, it could render your message ineffective because you would not receive the results you desire. Refuse to show disruptive emotions such as annoyance, frustration or anger, no matter how provoked you might become by your boss' response or lack thereof. Completely avoid using exclamations. This is your boss after all and you do not want to make things worse...

3) Keep your cool

This could be an also impossible feat to master, especially in extremely stressful situations. But remember the wise saying  - "loose lips sink ships". It is often advisable, when dealing with your difficult boss, to hold your tongue. What you do not say cannot be held against you.


I have my own stories as well. But what I have learnt is that keeping your cool when your boss raves, rants and refuses to be reasonable reveals two things: firstly that you are being more professional at that point, (much to his shame); and secondly, that you would be able to see, rather clearly, what the underlying issues are and how to resolve them.

Besides, such a difficult boss would have ruffled a few feathers in the past. So don't take it personally if you have tried everything and nothing appears to sway him. It is not your job to change him. It is however in your power to choose how to react in testing situations.

Perhaps this could be some consolation: he is a ticking time bomb and will self-destruct,  sooner or later. So step aside and allow him burn all his bridges and (hopefully) get transferred to another division or to another branch.  Better still - he could get fired.

4) Know your rights

At the workplace, ignorance is definitely NOT bliss.

Dust off that boring volume on company's guidelines. Pop into the HR office and ask for clarifications. Know your rights and know how to defend them. Be clear about the process of lodging an official complaint.

Companies worth their salt would not tolerate discriminatory attitudes or behaviours, nor would they fail to investigate allegations of abuse, harassment, unfair treatment or other serious grievances.

Hopefully you might never need to resort to making an official complaint about your boss. Nonetheless, it is empowering to be in the know, especially if you tactfully hint knowledge of the process.

Whatever the case may be, refuse to be treated with disrespect. Voice your concerns to your boss in a mature manner if he has used, on more than one occasion, insulting, unacceptable language or slurs. You should also do this if he makes sweeping generalisations which you consider offensive. As I have stated in a previous post - we all have the right to be treated with professional courtesy at the workplace; whether or not we are liked is irrelevant.

5) Ensure that you get credit for your work

I would concede that this point is borderline narcissism but note that you are not dealing with someone reasonable.

The danger of being 'modest' and in displaying self-effacing 'humility' is that your difficult boss, if he is truly diabolical, would not hesitate to take all the credit for your hard work, even if he's given you nothing but grief from the beginning.

But you would need to be very tactful when tooting your horn and only the really astute professionals know how to pull this off.

For the greatest impact, you would need to bide your time and mention your fantastic achievements in the presence of your boss' superiors. This could be casually done during a networking event, official dinner or when the 'super boss' makes the rare appearance at the office for a quick tour.

And what should you say?

Briefly mention how grateful you were to be a participant in the X project; how your team achieved an increase of X% in revenue or significantly boosted company’s performance; and how proud you all are of the company. You could do this while impressing this 'super-boss' with a visual representation, if possible, of the main results. (In this age of tablets, smart phones or other mobile devices, visuals are easily accessible). And all this should be done before your boss interrupts you. Statistics supplied by The Associated Press show that that our attention spans  are getting shorter. So try getting your point across in about two minutes.               

Be gracious - mention your boss' support for your initiative, but only once. Remember it is about you or your team's achievement. This may feel like 'lying through your teeth' but note that without your boss' approval, you might not have completed the project. 

It is a good sign if the 'super-boss' asks questions or seeks clarification, making you above all, memorable. This would come in handy during that 'secret' meeting whereby promotions/perks are decided or retrenchments are made.

Unfortunately, this suggestion might not work if your bad boss is the 'super-boss' of the company and does not appear to regularly report to higher authority. In such a circumstance, you might need to make the painful decision to stay in the toxic environment, but only for a certain period if you have no other options. However, use that time wisely: tie up loose ends; consolidate your portfolio; network with other professionals in powerful companies; and be on the look-out for better opportunities. Ensure you collect your well-deserved entitlements and exit with your head held high...


It is only fair to state that no one is perfect, not even you, therefore make allowances for your boss' shortcomings.

These tips are what you should do as pre-emptive measures when you are obligated to deal with a difficult boss. They could all be summed up in a simple piece of advice: protect yourself and your work.

Remember - you have worked very hard in your career and you shouldn't allow a bad boss/manager/supervisor to derail you from professional advancement.

Kindly post your comments below and share this article.

So what is your story?

What actions have you taken to survive a difficult boss?

How were able to keep your job despite seemingly insurmountable odds?

Recommended Reading:

N.B-  Images courtesy of


  1. Kevin Blighe (Via University of Leicester Alumni Group on LinkedIn)29 August 2013 at 11:48

    I like the line: "What you do not say cannot be held against you". I hold this philosophy in life, in general!

  2. Indeed Kevin. Thanks for reading the article.

  3. Abraham Yeboah (Via University of Leicester Alumni Group on LinkedIn)22 September 2013 at 18:22

    Yes, to some extent, I agree with Kevin. But we should understand that some bosses appear to know their roles, which doesn't seem to be so. Nonetheless, if you sit there without making any meaningful contribution/criticism they will take the entire organisation/department into a serious trouble (mind you, it is the place you get your daily bread). In fact, in this contemporary market environment, bosses who appear to adopt such difficult management style doesn't want to grow their businesses. Hence, to see that, the working environment wouldn't grow my personal ambition, aside the business I work for. It will be better for me to resign than to stay in a mess environment.

  4. Thanks Abraham for your comment. Exiting the company of course is an option. But wouldn't it be nice to be able to keep your job, especially if you enjoy brilliant professional development?

  5. Abraham Yeboah (Via University of Leicester Alumni Group on LinkedIn)23 September 2013 at 11:12

    Thanks Lucille, but the issue here is simple. How could someone in an organisation see the prospect of the company and decide to leave? Like to "enjoy professional development"! Mind you, a difficult boss is a difficult boss (mind you, they will not create good atmosphere for suggestions), unless all the quality personnel's leave, seeing the company sinking gradually, until such bosses beginning to appreciate views and opinion. Idea sharing is a form of critical thinking and decision making to move forward an organisation. If you considering my first post, I did mention that, where we work is where we get our daily bread. I don't think someone "just" resigning should be the case. But a difficult boss who seem to make a personnel redundant, poor communication, as well as poor relations, and so on wouldn't be appropriate to work with, no matter how much one earn. If a boss exhibit such behaviour, can someone stay and work peacefully?

    1. Hello again Abraham. To answer your last question - no, I suppose in extreme situations, it's really not worth dying slowing at work if the boss is truly diabolical. For the sake of mental and physical health, one shouldn't prolong the inevitable exit if all other out-of-the-box tactics didn't work..

    2. Ed Trollope (Via University of Leicester Alumni Group on LinkedIn)27 September 2013 at 16:21

      I heard a saying some time ago, though sadly I can't remember where from, that "people don't leave companies - they leave bosses". I think there's a missing link in your logic with regards leaving a company though. It's not necessary to quit, and then look for a new job. There's nothing stopping you from looking for a new job and quitting once you have it. If you take that approach, you replace the awful problem of "can't leave" with the more temporary "can't leave yet".

    3. Hello Ed,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I understand your point and you make a good argument. In a separate post, I mentioned the top reasons why an employee would leave and cited the quote you made, which can be traced to a Gallup poll taken of one million U.S workers :

      Of course a really toxic boss or work environment would warrant an exit, irrespective of the actions you take to survive.

      The points raised in my post however were actions you could take during the period, no matter how brief, whereby you are somewhat 'obligated' to work with a difficult boss. This could be because you are under a contract or are biding your time while awaiting a better offer to be finalised etc. You could view the advice given as what to do to safeguard your job UNTIL you are ready to move on and not before...

      So if you have tips of your own on how you survived a difficult boss at some point in your career, kindly share.

    4. Ed Trollope (Via University of Leicester Alumni Group on LinkedIn)1 October 2013 at 12:43

      IMNSHO a really toxic boss should always warrant an exit - not necessarily of the company, but at least of the team to get away from them. You only have one life, and you spend a huge proportion of it at work - if you're not happy at work, you're not going to be a very happy person, and that is something you shouldn't have to accept. Easier said than done, I know. I've "put up" with bad situations for too long (many years) myself.

      I think the key point is the word "career". A job is something you do to get paid, but a career is something that grows and evolves as you do.

      I see two kinds of relationship you can have with your boss: a good boss you'll see as both a team member and a mentor. You make a commitment to them, and they do the same to you. They will help you grow, and ultimately to leave if that's the best thing for you - they'll wish you well and be sad to see you go, but they will help you do what's best for you. I'm happy to say I've had bosses like this, too. Note that I didn't describe them as a friend, but you will have a friendly relationship. A subtle, but important distinction.

      The scenario in which you have a bad boss makes it impossible to have this kind of relationship. To avoid them becoming a barrier to your career progression as well as an annoyance, I suggest handling them as you would a difficult client. Always give them what they ask for, and get everything in writing - so if what they ask for differs from what they want, you can point to it in your defence. This won't endear you to them obviously, and I would never recommend it as a starting point, but if you're in a toxic environment it sadly becomes worth doing. Rather than making a commitment to them as you would a good boss, which may mean sacrificing your own goals in the short term "for the greater good", have in mind a clear focus on what you want to get out of the relationship and always work towards that.

      In other words, start preparing for your exit. If you're in a really toxic environment, then sooner or later you WILL make an exit - whether it's your choice or not. So make sure you're ready for it, and try to do it on your terms. This might mean a sideways move, working towards a promotion, it might be a total career change that requires starting an OU course in the evenings, or it might simply be getting some experience to meet the requirements of another position elsewhere. Don't get stuck in a situation where you're always giving more and more, but getting less and less in return until you burn out. It's one thing to give everything for a project in which you're happy, but if you're giving everything for a job you hate and not making progress in your own life, you're in for a very rough time indeed.

    5. Hello again Ed,

      Thanks for sharing your interesting perspectives and you are right of course - a truly toxic environment would warrant an exit. It just becomes a question of timing.

      I especially like your suggestions of ensuring you are ready for the inevitable exit in such environments, by improving your portfolio - either by taking on an extra course or by building up experience for another position elsewhere. And this is working smarter and not being led by emotion so that when you DO leave, you are prepared and open to better options.

      Thanks again for your comment.


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