Bad boss? 8 helpful ways to stay professional and ‘manage up’

Aug 5, 2021

Dealing with a difficult boss?

It’s often said people leave managers, not jobs. And it’s understandable.

A bad boss can leave you feeling frustrated, unappreciated and dissatisfied at work. And even questioning if it’s time to move on.

But before you quit, consider how you can build a better relationship with your boss — despite their faults and inadequacies.

I work with leaders to develop their careers. They often share stories of dealing with difficult personalities and conflicting leadership styles. And in some cases, downright bad behaviour.

In my previous recruitment career, I lost count of the number of times lawyers presented a ‘blacklist’ of firms they didn’t want to work for. The culprit was often someone else’s negative experience with a certain leader. Or the poor reputation of a particular partner.

I’ve worked with many tricky bosses throughout my career too. Despite the challenges, dealing with a difficult boss is an opportunity to develop your own leadership skills, build resilience and learn how to self-manage.

One of the most valuable skills you can learn as a leader, is the art of ‘managing up.’ There’s a lot of advice available about how to be a better leader to those who report to you. What’s rarely discussed is how to manage upwards to the person you report to.

While you can’t control your boss’s behaviour, you get to choose how to respond to it. As a leader, taking responsibility for how you’re managed and proactive steps to build an effective relationship with your manager is critical to your career success.

Here are eight strategies to help you remain professional when handling a challenging boss. You’ll learn the exact steps to follow to confidently ‘manage up’.

#1 — SEEK TO UNDERSTAND

Baffled by your boss’s bad behaviour? Disagree with their decisions or frustrated with how they lead?

Before you speak up or complain, realise they are human. There’s always another side to the story. Get to the bottom of the issue and seek to understand why they’re acting this way.

Do they lack leadership skills? People are often promoted on technical ability but may have poor people skills. I began managing others in my mid-20’s and had limited leadership experience at first.

Their personality, leadership or communication style may be different to yours. Is what you believe they’re doing ‘wrong’ really their fault — or is it outside their control? They may be under pressure from above and taking it out on their team.

#2 — KNOW THEIR MOTIVATIONS + MANAGEMENT STYLE

Get to know their management style, how it differs to yours and how you can best work together.

Start by understanding their motivations. What do they value? How do they make decisions and why do they behave the way they do?

Find out their strengths, weaknesses and how you can support them. If they tend to run long-winded meetings without any structure, set an agenda or keep track of time for them. Offer to take tasks off their plate if they struggle to delegate.

Identify your boss’s leadership style, notice their personality and way they communicate. What do they like or respond well to? What do they get annoyed or angry about?

Learn how to work with them by comparing their approach to your own. What are the differences? Identify what you can do to bridge these gaps.

Working for a detail-orientated boss can be frustrating if you’re a strategic, big picture person. In this case, be conscious of taking notes during conversations or meetings. Show them you’ve listened by paying attention to the details.

If your boss is a micro-manager, provide them with regular progress updates. Instead of getting disgruntled when they chase you up, take control of the situation.

#3 — TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

Consider how you could be contributing to your manager’s behaviour. Are you part of the problem? Are you the only one who thinks they’re a bad boss?

Dealing with a difficult boss can be demotivating but don’t drop your performance. Avoid coming in late, missing deadlines or complaining to your colleagues. Stay calm and professional under pressure and maintain your performance.

Others will be watching from all levels of the business. It’s important to maintain your reputation now and for your future career.

#4 — CREATE CLEAR LINES OF COMMUNICATION

Clear communication is key to building an effective working relationship with your boss. Find out how they like to communicate. Do they prefer weekly email updates or an in person catch-up each morning?

Take time to understand their expectations, desired outcomes and results for each project. Also manage their expectations around your workload and current capacity. Be prepared to set boundaries and say no when needed.

Finally, show initiative. Provide regular updates to keep them up to speed on your progress. Keep checking in to confirm you’re both on the same page with how your work is coming along.

#5 — ADDRESS THE ISSUES

Rather than confront your boss about what they’re doing wrong, ask for a meeting to discuss a specific issue. Schedule the meeting in advance on a day and time you’re both at your best. And take the time to prepare ahead for the conversation.

Address ONE specific task or challenge at a time. Explain how their actions and behaviour impacts your productivity, performance and job satisfaction. Be specific about what you need to do your job.

Always communicate the benefits of addressing the issue. How it helps your boss, their team and the organisation. Also be proactive, brainstorm some solutions ahead of the discussion and share them.

#6 — SEEK SOLUTIONS

Here are some suggested solutions to common ‘bad boss’ challenges:

The Micromanager

Your boss refuses to delegate or has a tendency to micromanage, which slows your work down. Let them know how this impacts you and others — and offer specific ways to help.

‘I’m waiting for you on (specific task) to get X project progressed or finalised. Because of this delay, the team is struggling to meet the client’s deadline. What do I need to be aware of to create the final draft — or can you approve it NOW?’

‘These are the steps I’d like to take — are you happy for me to proceed?’

If you have the experience or authority, use initiative and make a decision. Then let your boss know the outcome and your reasons behind it. Others will notice you stepping up as a leader and will start supporting your ideas or approaching you as a manager.

No Boundaries

Does your boss have unreasonable expectations around your workload or delivery? They’re constantly chasing up the status of ‘urgent’ work. This puts pressure on you to manage an unrealistic workload — or you do lots of overtime to meet deadlines.

Set boundaries around your working hours and communicate these to your boss. Explain how you’ve prioritised your workload and how your projects are progressing. And let them know when you’re at capacity, as they may not be aware!

The Angry Boss

If your boss is yelling or angrily lashing out at you or your colleagues, don’t retaliate. Respond in a calm, professional manner without getting angry too.

Is this behaviour out of character? If it’s a once-off, don’t take it personally. It may not have anything to do with you.

However, if the bad behaviour continues or isn’t appropriate, speak up. Take steps to address it directly. Or report it to HR or senior management by following your company’s internal process.

#7 — WEIGH UP THE POSITIVES

If your boss is making your working life miserable, focus on what you DO enjoy. It may be aspects of the work you do, the company culture, your team, flexibility or other benefits.

Evaluate the positive aspects of working with your manager. What do they do well? And what you can you learn from them?

Do these positives outweigh the challenges of working with a ‘bad’ boss?

#8 — DECIDE TO STAY — OR GO

It’s important to know when to wait it out — or move on. Have the courage to speak up about what you’re not happy with. And take steps to address any issues before you decide to quit.

Give your boss a chance to respond and work with you to find solutions. The goal is to open up communication and create a respectful working relationship. You don’t need to be best friends!

If their behaviour is unacceptable, log a complaint with HR or senior management. Keep a record of any conversations and the steps you’ve taken to address the issues.

Followed these steps and decided it’s time to move on? Don’t quit without a plan or accept the first job which comes along. Do your research and start building internal and external relationships prior to leaving.

Considering an internal move? Get to know the new manager and team you’ll be working for to find out if it’s the right fit.

If you’re looking to join a new company, do your due diligence in advance. Catch-up with other team members and ask about the role, organisation and your future boss. Learn as much as you can about their leadership style, the team and company culture.

We all experience a bad boss at some stage in our careers. Although challenging, it is possible to remain professional and become better at managing them. These strategies have helped my clients learn the art of ‘managing up’ and I hope they support you too.

Want help to develop your leadership skills and learn how to ‘manage up’?

Book your free 30 minute consult HERE to get started!

Stacey Back is a Career Strategist, Leadership Coach + Founder of Profile Careers. She helps high-achieving corporate leaders and business owners at a mid-career crossroads find the work that lights them up, increase their income, impact and create a career + life on their terms.

Stacey also supports professionals to transition from their corporate job into their own consulting business. She works virtually with individuals based across the globe.