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Superiors at work come in a variety of sizes, forms, and personalities. While no boss is perfect, some are easier to deal with than others. And some are downright difficult.

Difficult bosses come in many flavors: angry, critical, controlling, threatened, dissatisfied, depressed, egocentric, and superficial. Further, difficult bosses are those who don’t listen to others, can’t function as a resource to staff, and don’t know enough to be in a management position in the first place.

There is hardly a more potent and pervasive workplace stressor than a dysfunctional boss. A recent survey by an agency (The National Mental Health Association) identified employment issues as the third main source of stress in American life. SkillSoft, a leading online learning company, hired someone foreign entity to research the top ten workplace stressors and irritants.

Managers changing their minds on what they want, lack of help from managers, pressure from managers, feeling oppressed by managers, interruptions by managers, and bullying behavior by managers are six of the ten irritants; that is linked to the actions or behavior of the dysfunctional boss. All of these issues could be managed in a healthy relationship with an effective boss. If you are working for one of these kinds of bosses, you need to practice the following until you choose to leave:

1. Stay Calm

Stay calm - Dysfunctional Boss

Know yourself well enough to determine exactly what you have to do each day to remain grounded and calm in the midst of misery. Maybe you need to take a series of deep breaths upon arriving at work every morning. Maybe you need to play soft, soothing background music in your office. Perhaps you benefit from taking your lunch break alone at a nearby restaurant.

What about brief episodes of meditation, meaningful or silly connections with coworkers, or drinking cups of tea? Whatever helps you maintain balance is key. The price for chronic frustration, simmering rage, and walking on eggshells every single day? Stomach aches, headaches, heart palpitations, loss of appetite or overeating, and insomnia head the list of physical manifestations.

In addition, you may lose your ability to concentrate, become forgetful, and/or develop ongoing fear. Working for a difficult boss requires YOU to take charge of yourself by managing your response to whatever is going on.

2. Help Your Boss Look Good To Others When Possible.

While your gut inclination may be to do just the opposite, don’t do it. You’ll be sorry if you make your boss look stupid, inadequate, or unprepared in front of even one other person. Bosses don’t forget those sorts of stunts. Avoid the temptation to sacrifice the boss’s reputation so you can feel better for a few minutes. Instead, go out of your way to support your boss publicly when you can do so legitimately and authentically.

This could take the form of agreeing with a major point she makes during a meeting, adding action steps to a basic strategy he lays out, thanking him for a demonstration of personal concern, and congratulating her on receiving a community service award. In other words, fighting fire with fire is never a good choice.

The ramifications of that mistake are enormous and may follow you for the rest of your career. Who is the loser then? This advice is not about buttering up a dysfunctional boss; it’s about showing thoughtful support when the person actually does perform well. It may not happen often, but when it does, pay attention and give her credit.

3. Do Your Job Well In A Timely Fashion.

One way you can protect yourself from a difficult boss is to make sure you are doing a credible job in the position you hold. In short, you reduce the odds of being randomly fired in the heat of anger, in a moment of irrationality, or during an explosion of ego-boosting. Protect yourself from being a handy target. Prove your professional value to your boss regularly.

Mostly does it quietly, but sometimes do it as you are blowing a horn. Ensure that your boss appreciates your work-related contributions, your general approach to things, and your style with other people. Be informed, knowledgeable, efficient, effective, and empathetic: a winning combination. Just exhibit all of this with common sense and grace, never overshadowing your boss who may value who you are as long as you don’t make him feel inferior. It’s like doing a narrow line juggling act. It takes constant practice.

4. Don’t Argue With Your Boss.

Don't Argue With Dysfunctional Boss

Understand that you cannot win an argument with your dysfunctional boss. It’s virtually impossible. Because your boss is the kind of person he is, he is the one who must win at all costs. That’s why you must not go there at all. Engage in healthy discussions, but not an argument. Clearly state the points important to you, and then back off. Employ little or no emotion. Stick to the issue. Acknowledge the validity of certain points your boss makes when the opportunity arises.

He needs to be heard. He needs you to agree with him when you do. One very effective technique is to say: “I see how frustrated you are, Tom. It must be hard to have inherited that problem from our sister department and worked through it. If there is something I can do to help, please let me know.” Say this even if you don’t really see the problem Tom outlines to you; what matters is that HE sees a problem and has had a strong reaction to it.

5. Resist Complaining To Colleagues.

Realize that, whatever you say to someone else may get repeated to your boss. And when it is repeated, it may not be accurate. You take a big risk complaining and whining to colleagues about your boss’s faults. Sometimes employees get caught up in this behavior as a way to vent, create or solidify relationships with peers, or paint a picture of superiority of themselves.

Regardless of why they do it, their loose tongues usually harm them down the road. I’m speaking from personal experience here. Many years ago I confided my great disappointment with my boss in a close colleague whose office was located directly next to mine. In a low voice, I poured out my feelings while standing in her doorway. My boss summoned me to her office on the lower floor half an hour later, revealing that she had overheard everything I’d said.

Did my cheeks burn red! What I’d told my colleague reflected how I really felt based on a set of facts, but I never imagined that my boss would find out I said it. In that case, my problems weren’t created because a colleague betrayed my confidence; they were created by me directly. Beware of these circumstances. If you need to air your frustrations, select a trusted friend or family member outside of the workplace.

6. Diffuse Your Boss’s Displays Of Strong-Or Inappropriate Emotion.

You’ve got a boss who yells, swears, pounds her desktop, throws objects, demeans you, cries openly, issues threats, or criticizes everything people do? The next time she shows up in your doorway ranting and raving about the latest “crisis”, keep a reasonable physical distance from her. Gently tell her you can see she is very upset. Then ask her how you, in particular, can help to improve the situation that has her so angry. “What is one thing I can do to help you right now?”

Maintain a stable, even-toned demeanor. Avoid wringing your hands, biting your lip, raising your voice, showing fear. Establish eye contact, but don’t stare. Show genuine concern and interest, but don’t let yourself get sucked into the craziness. Separate yourself from your boss and the frenzied aura she is creating. If you actually do these things, you can diffuse the intensity of the tirade.

7. Inspire Your Boss To Be A Better Boss.

Inspire Dysfunctional Boss

Amazingly, people often rise to other people’s expectations of them. EXPECT your difficult boss to behave differently, at least in certain situations. Expect him to learn more, do more, be more. Expect her to listen to you if she usually doesn’t. Expect her to hold her criticism of a colleague when she usually speaks freely. Expect her to offer her support when you usually don’t get it. Expect him to love your finished products when he typically dismisses them.

Expect greater freedom in circumstances he tends to control. Expect. Expect. Expect. What do you want to see more of? Expect those things every day. Put out those positive vibrations, and observe subtle or not-so-subtle changes. This is not voodoo. Expect something better and you may get it. Expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed. Say things like: “I’m excited to show you my newest accomplishment. I know you’ll appreciate my efforts.” This sets the tone for a different response.


Frequently, when you work for an impossible boss, you think about quitting. You dream about a knowledgeable, resourceful, fair, confident, caring, controlled boss who praises your work, provides constructive criticism in a reasonable fashion, and promotes your growth. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. In fact, it can be far worse than what you currently endure. In an era when quitting may not be the wisest move, figure out how to stay where you are and not lose your mind in the process.

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