A difficult manager. We have all known someone like this or worked for this type of person. This is a person who seems to have an on and off switch which can be triggered or activated, with or without any warning. This manager is challenging to work with and when it is your manager whose personality or demeanor seems to constantly change – it poses even greater challenges as this person is responsible for your work assignments, performance evaluations, and establishing a reputation with your employer. When you find you are in this situation, there are coping strategies you can implement to help how you respond to and work with this type of challenging (and often difficult) boss.
While there are countless articles written about managing employees effectively, along with resources that describe leadership styles which bring out the best in employees, managing others is still individually based. For example, some managers can supervise employees well while other managers have developed leadership qualities. Some managers are actively engaged in the development of their employees and others lead from a distance – intervening only when there is a conflict that cannot be resolved.
One aspect of managing others which has a significant influence on working relationships is a manager's disposition. Some managers rule with an "iron fist" while others may view their role as collaborating with employees. Some managers may seem like dictators and others may appear to be aloof and not very responsive to the needs of their employees. It is this disposition which appears to fluctuate from time to time and if so, that is when employees may feel as if they are working for someone unpredictable.
When Personalities Do Not Match
As a career coach, I've heard clients state they did not expect their manager to act in a certain manner after starting a new job – as if that manager intentionally changed their personality. Most people display their best personality when starting a new position, and this includes the employee and their manager. Even with the most engaging job interview, and use of behavioral-based questions, it is not always possible to predict how someone else will behave in the long run. You may believe you have a good feeling about a manager; however, you won't know if that feeling is an accurate measurement until you have worked with that person for some time.
There is an expression often used when employees do not get along and it refers to a difference in personalities. A manager or an employee may state that about the other when it is difficult to get along with them and/or a working relationship has broken down. If the manager has made that statement it is often used as a warning sign and indicator the employee is expected to change in some manner.
No matter how hard employees work to ensure relationships at work remain professional, after time on the job there is always going to be a personal aspect. Friendships are formed, cliques are established, and a distinction of who is liked or not liked becomes clear – and may be based entirely upon perceptual factors. This happens with every employee and every manager within an organization.
Five Strategies for Working with a Challenging Boss
When it seems that you are working for a manager who frequently changes personalities or their disposition, there are strategies you can consider as a means of coping and working with that individual.
#1. Find a Way to Relate to Your Boss
When you are able to relate to someone else you are finding common ground with them and being relatable means that you are breaking down potential barriers which could block a productive working relationship. This is not a process that works instantaneously or happens overnight, rather it is a process which is done through a series of positive interactions. When you look for ways to relate to your manager, try to find neutral topics which avoid emotional reactions. In other words, if your manager is challenging to work with you may want to avoid discussing politics with him or her.
#2. Learn to Tolerate Your Boss, No Really
If you have a manager who exhibits extreme behavior, learning to tolerate them can be challenging. I am not stating that you have to accept their behavior or try to understand why they act in the manner that they do now. However, you can look at the bigger picture. What would it mean for your job, your career, your team or department, and your employer if you try to tolerate how your manager acts?
Learning to tolerate a manager also means you do not go above them and try to report why you believe their behavior is inappropriate – unless you have a justifiable matter that would involve someone from a Human Resources department. How you perceive your manager may be different from a perception held by their superior.
#3. Conduct a Self-Analysis to Gain Self-Control
Any time you find what you believe is inconsistent behavior from your manager, the first step is to look inward. While that may seem counterintuitive, it is important because you need to evaluate your perception of this person – along with the actions you have taken or would like to take now.
Here are some questions to ask: Have you done your best to develop and nurture a working relationship? Have you performed your very best regardless of how you perceive your manager? Is there anything more you can do or should do now to make the situation better? Finally, if you believe this situation is unacceptable and cannot be changed, is it time to find a different department to work in or look for a new job?
#4. Watch Out for the Warning Signs
If you have a manager whose disposition can fluctuate from day to day, it will likely occur often enough you begin to develop a sense of what the warning signs are or when the changes are going to take place. If so, you can learn to work around or work with those changes. If the personality changes occur suddenly and without warning, then your only alternative may be to avoid any actions that can be viewed as confrontational.
You may never know why these changes occur and trying to get to the bottom of it can also be an exercise in futility. However, as you get to know your manager you should be able to identify those times and situations when you can avoid direct contact – unless you are specifically asked a question or instructed to do something for them.
#5. Maintain Your Own Emotional Response
It can be easy to state that emotional intelligence on your part is the answer; however, a sudden change in your manager's personality or disposition requires more than managing your emotions – it most likely means you need to hold back any actions or responses. While you may feel frustrated, you must do your best not to let those frustrations show as it will only create greater tension between you and your manager.
Keep in mind your manager is in a position of authority and any actions on your part which can be viewed as being negative or hostile will only result in negative outcomes or consequences – whether or not you are justified in how you feel about your manager. Maintaining control applies of all of your actions and your communication, both verbal and written communication.
Consider Your Manager's Perspective
You may view your manager's personality and disposition strictly from the lens of how it applies to you and your working environment. However, you should also consider their perspective as well. A manager is not only responsible for their outcomes and productivity; they are also responsible for an entire team. Their role can be very demanding, especially if goals are not being met. This certainly does not justify any manager acting in a manner that is not emotionally balanced; however, as an employee you can learn to empathize with their role, try to understand what they expect of you, and work to improve how they perceive you and your work.
How you respond to your manager can ultimately influence their disposition towards you, either in a positive or negative manner. If you work for an unpredictable manager, there may be no immediate or easy answers but what you can learn to do is to learn to cope with the situation – to lessen your emotional reactions and help you still work to the best of your ability, for the overall benefit of your job and career. Coping strategies can also lessen the potential for experiencing stress and built up long-term frustration. What you never want to do is to aggravate someone who seems difficult to work with now. You may never fully understand or be able to explain why your manager acts the way that they do but you have an ability to control your response to them at all times.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.
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