5 Tips: How to Work with a Boss You Don’t Like

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By Natalie Canavor, author

More and more people I talk to these days complain about their bosses: He doesn’t listen…she doesn’t appreciate me…he doesn’t explain what he wants but expects way too much.  One reason for the unhappiness, I think, is that many organizations are stepping up the musical chairs, so we find ourselves facing someone new with an uncomfortable period of adjustment over and over again.  Or maybe you’ve never much cared for your boss and the feeling has only deepened over time.

But fact is, we all know from experience that how happy and productive we are at work depends almost totally on our relationship with that direct supervisor. If the situation is unhappy and you don’t want to leave the job, can you take the lead to improve things? Yes: in many cases, to a surprising degree.  Here are some ways to start formulating your own program of action.

Credit: nenetus/Shutterstock

Look at the boss objectively

Especially if new, she’s probably facing a major learning curve, a ton of unfamiliar responsibilities, pressure from on high to produce. She needs to establish herself with a team that might be unified or not so much, a tough proposition in either case. She’s probably had little training in management—including how to lead people. This is true of many supervisors in long-term positions too.

Recognize your own role

You are 50% of the relationship. Unless you’re confronting a truly unreasonable person, you help set the tone and contribute to maintaining it. If the prevailing atmosphere is negative or uncomfortable, part of the reason is you. Emotions are contagious!  If your dislike is apparent, remember that it’s hard to like someone who dislikes you. If you show barely veiled disrespect to someone, you generate disrespect in return.

Know that you have great power over your interactions

Respond to someone differently that he expects, and he will in turn react differently. When something is said or done that you don’t like, rather than reacting in a negative emotional way, choose to handle the situation. A good start is to take a pause and think. Analyze. Strategize. If the boss is being abrupt, for example, might there be other explanations than “she doesn’t value me”? Like, she’s stressed by a pressure or problem. Once you let yourself see that it’s not always about you, and put yourself in control, it becomes easier to ask yourself, what is a good way to handle this? Breathe deeply and just listen, perhaps? Smile and nod? Make a suggestion or say something supportive?

Practice this self-management technique and you’ll be surprised at how seldom an immediate response is called for in tense situations, and how often you’re able to strategize your own response. The key is to abstract yourself from emotion that prevents you from thinking clearly.

Here are two proactive experiments to help alter the negative relationship that make you unhappy. The first can help you shift your perspective and see your boss more fully and fairly. The second encourages you to create a small change in how you behave—and are perceived. An incremental difference may be enough to start creating a more positive energy.

Credit: career-intelligence.com

Create a pro and con list

Write down everything you don’t like about your boss, one item after another till you run out.

Then write a list of the positive attributes and qualities you do like. This may take more thought: push yourself.

Review both lists. Did you find more positives than you expected? Some insights? Which list includes attributes that matter more to you? Even if the con list is longer, some entries on the pro list may feel more important. For example, your boss is grumpy and at times inconsiderate, but he treats people fairly, and is leading the department in a good direction. This simple analysis counters the blanket judgment we are prone to. At the least, it clarifies the issues.

Do *something* different

Disrupt the pattern of expectation you’ve set or contribute to. For example: Poke your head into his office to say “good morning” with a bright smile. Think of a compliment you can make with sincerity: “That was a great meeting,” or “I appreciated the chance to sit in on this.” Supervisors value positive feedback and appreciation from staff but rarely get it. Might you offer to help at crunch time rather than showing resentment? “I see the deadline is close—what can I do to help?”

The bottom line:  Choose to shift your perspective toward the positive. Thhink and behave with a generous spirit. You may find that you like the boss better—and yourself.


Natalie Canavor has been a national magazine editor-in-chief, director of corporate communications, and award-winning writer for the New York Times and numerous business publications. She has been interviewed for PBS’s Next Avenue and by Fast Company, among others. She also leads business communication workshops and advanced writing seminars for universities and has written four books, including Business Writing for Dummies. Natalie lives and works in New York City and Annapolis, Maryland.

Workplace Genie
By Natalie Canavor and Susan Dowell, LCSW
ISBN 9781510715257

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