How to manage a difficult boss

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According to Terry Bates, managing director of GHN Coaching, most people have problems with their superiors. It goes with the territory.

Banking bosses may, however, be more problematic than most. In a business driven by the bottom line, executives are frequently selected for promotion on the basis of their financial contribution rather than their management skills.

'My boss is totally autocratic and fickle,' complains one banker. 'I don't know where I stand. I'm supposed to be in control of my division, but ultimately there's absolutely nothing that goes on without him having some say in it. Even down to ordering paper clips. He's friendly to me one minute and stabbing me in the back the next.

'He's made a lot of money for the organisation and because of this, fellow directors seem unwilling to tackle his behaviour, and HR are afraid to do anything about it in case they are blamed for his leaving.'

Fortunately, if the behaviour of a boss becomes too objectionable then natural forces intervene: People leave. Even the highest earning boss becomes a liability when they lose the bank endless valuable staff. But leaving carries a whiff of defeat and is not always the best, or even a viable, option. If staying, Terry Bates advises that you bear one thing in mind: you can only change your own behaviour.

Why is my boss difficult?

Before looking at your behaviour it is worth examining exactly what you think it is that makes your boss so hard to deal with. According to Adrianne Roseanne of Fairplace Consulting, individuals have problems with their bosses for the following reasons:

  • The boss is overly-controlling and directive and doesn't give individuals reporting to them enough freedom and autonomy.
  • The boss is aggressive, intimidating, and possibly even bullying.
  • The values of the boss are different from those of the employee(s) that report to them. For example, the boss may be highly competitive and driven to succeed at work, while the individual(s) may be more eager for an easy life.
  • The boss is subject to work pressures and has a wide remit, which does not leave them enough time to manage their team.

First steps to coping with a difficult boss

Whatever the source of the difficulty, relationships with bosses are governed by one simple and ineluctable fact: They are professional relationships. Disputes occur in the context of the workplace.

Jaquie Drake, professor at the Praxis Centre of the Cranfield School of Management, says that there is a tendency to personalise what is essentially a professional affair. It's all too easy, she says, to categorise your boss as the enemy. Work-related comments are therefore liable to be taken personally the boss is seen as an obstacle to personal advancement.

Instead of succumbing to this kind of negative perception, Drake suggests you put yourself in your boss's position. Try to think how your boss would think. Try to understand what he or she is seeking to achieve. Understand the pressures that they face.

Dealing with your boss requires self-awareness. Aggressive bosses erode self-esteem and diminish self-respect, leading to a downward spiral of submissive behaviour as colleagues react to your passivity. 'I am far from being a shrinking violet but for some reason I let this man grind me down. I still don't know why I did that now,' says an investment banker whose boss was prone to violent rages.

Improving your own assertiveness is crucial in handling controlling or bullying bosses. The problem with assertiveness is that, while it is not aggression, if mismanaged, it can easily be mistaken for aggression.

In his book, 'Managing your Boss and Colleagues', Steve Gravett advises that the asserter 'avoid aggressive body language and maintain eye contact. Adopt a relaxed posture, smile and concentrate on achieving positive outcomes.'

Taming the beast

Gravett suggests a formula for successfully managing boss relations, recalled with the aid of the mnemonic SCAM.

Seek advice. Tap into the knowledge of your manager - educate yourself and simultaneously massage their ego.

Cultivate them. Positions of power and authority are attained as a result of business acumen and good connections. Recognise, acknowledge, and cultivate your boss's expertise.

Avoid being a know-all. Be aware of your boss's weaknesses. Don't try to be too clever and outshine your boss. Posing a threat will get you nowhere.

Make yourself indispensable. Know where your boss's blind spots are, who their rivals are. Be supportive when necessary. Loyalty is appreciated and remembered.

A matter of perception

However difficult your boss may be, you can only deal with your own behaviour. By altering your approach you may be able to make a difference. You may think that your boss is a living incarnation of the Rubik's Cube, but is this really the case? Once you empathise with your boss you may find that they are not as difficult as you first thought. If they are, then fear not: You can always leave.

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