Helen Bryant

How to Handle a Difficult Boss

Have you got a difficult boss? Or something maybe you need to talk to them about, and you are feeling nervous about it? This topic comes up often in my workshops. It's the one thing that strikes fear into so many people, whether they be individual contributors, first-line managers, and even senior leaders. All face the same fear, a difficult situation with their manager that they are nervous about addressing and is causing them stress and worry. 

It's all too easy to remain reactive in this situation. Think that we can't do anything about it, and we worry about what our manager may do as a consequence. In this video, I'm going to share with you five steps that will help you improve the relationship between you and your manager and provide an environment where you feel confident to share any feedback you may have with them.
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Read the transcript here

We've all had that bad boss. I know I have. I've mainly had really good ones, they're not perfect though, no one is. There have definitely been times even with the good ones where I've been nervous about having certain conversations.

I had one manager who did not work well for me at all. I would say it was partly my fault and part their fault. But I do know that had a big effect on my morale, my confidence and my enjoyment of work. Definitely in that situation, I just let it roll and that was not good for me.

I also know that with the managers that I've worked well with, I have been nervous at times about talking about certain topics, but I've kind of pushed through and done it. And our relationships were all the better for it. So like you I've had it both ways. But I completely understand that it's an unnerving situation with which to deal.

Step 1 Recognise you will feel nervous

Step one is to recognise that the reason that we feel nervous about dealing with certain situations or giving our managers direct feedback is they have power. They have power over us. They can have a big influence on the success of our career at this stage.

They also sometimes have an ego, which has often helped them get to be in their role in the first place. And ego again can be tricky to deal with. The reason is that deep down, we are feeling threatened. It's our brain is saying, there is a social threat here and you need to be careful. At a deep level you are thinking am I going to fight, am I going to flight and run off, or are you going to freeze? And many people just freeze. They just stay, in that position. And don't do anything about it.

If we confront that should be how we're feeling, but there are things we can do, and we can make progress. If we bring ourselves out of our comfort zone and try new things, we can often surprise ourselves wit what we can achieve. So recognize that your brain is saying don't get out of your comfort zone. I'm saying get ready to get out of your comfort zone.

Step 2
  Get to know your manager and their expectations of you

Many managers have been successful, individual contributors. They have lots of knowledge about the subject you are all working in. But the skills of being a manager are fundamentally different to the skills of being a successful individual contributor, and many managers are not trained. They should they will make the jump from one successful part of their career to the other and many don't. One of the most significant lessons that managers learn in my workshops is the importance of giving clarity to their team on expectations. They think they have, but somehow it gets lost in translation. Recognise that your manager may not be doing that.

Be proactive, find out what is important to them. What are their expectations of you? Start with your objectives ask them what would a really good job looks like from their perspective. Find out what you need to do to be successful in your eyes.
Also find about out about what their goals are and what they are trying to achieve with the team. What's their vision? The more, you understand this context, the better relationship you will build with them and create trust between you.  You will understand their motivations and why they sometimes think the way they do. And the more you'll be able to deliver against those expectations.
When you are clear on your expectations, your job is to deliver against those expectations as best you can.  I often see this mismatch in expectations between the two individuals, caused by not being aligned. However hard you work, you always feel like you're failing or not delivering in their eyes. But this is often because they have a different set of expectations that have not been expressed clearly.

Have these conversations in your One-to-Ones. If your manager is not doing regular One-to-Ones, be proactive and ask for time with them. 

Check out my video lesson on Effective One-to-Ones if you are not sure what to do. It will help you shape these valuable One-to-One meetings with your manager.

Step 3  Use questions to face into the more tricky conversations

Face into the more tricky conversations, and have the confidence to have them but plan out the conversation to guide you. Don't build yourself up and think, "I'm gonna tell them, I'm going to tell them" and then blurt out what it is you wanted to say.

Instead, use questions to frame the conversation. Questions are underused in our communication style. But they're an effective way to frame conversations and understand more about what the other person is thinking.

So, for example, you may feel you've been overloaded with work.

You might want to say: "For some time, I've frequently been working late, and there's too much to do."
Instead, ask the question: "Can we spend some time getting clear on my priorities? I've been working long hours, and I would like to make sure that we have a mutual view of our priorities."

Or might want to give direct feedback to your manager, for example, that you think they are not helping you to develop fast enough in your role or not helping you get promoted.

Instead, ask the question: "Can you help me understand what I need to do to be promoted in this role? I am keen to progress in my career".

Using the questions to understand their view first allows you to understand what they think better. Afterwards, if you feel that there is direct feedback you want to say, you can raise it against what they've said.

Using the questions to understand the situation first can help you face the more tricky conversations that may exist between you and your manager.

Step 4  Be a problem solver

Managers love proactive problem solvers. When I worked in a corporate environment, I had people in my teams who I knew would always come having thought about a problem and then have an idea or two about how to fix it. And I frequently agreed and they got on solving that problem.

But I also had people who would just tell me the problem. Often I already knew what the problem was, it was just that we are trying to do lots of things and I didn't have time to take that on at that precise moment.

Recognise these capacity constraints. Always face problems by thinking of ideas that might solve them. For example, you might be thinking that lots of your meetings are inefficient, then suggest ways in which you could improve your teamwork. Use questions again to help you, and ask "Can I share some ideas I have had about improving our meetings?"

Mobilise your team around you. Not everything needs to go through your manager to change things and by talking to your colleagues, you may find better ways of working together or better ways of solving a problem that you are facing.

Be a problem solver, and be aware if you are just sharing the problem. Because that often just feels like a whinge. Take it on, be the problem solver, share your ideas and ask for that opportunity with your manager. You will get rewarded for it.

Step 5  Protect yourself if it all goes wrong

I find if you follow those four steps over time, you can often make an enormous difference to the relationship between you and your manager. It normally takes a little time, say over 12 weeks, you can get a dramatic change and improvement in your working relationship with your manager. 

However, there's one more step because sometimes it's not enough. You may have an ineffective manager, or at their worst, just a really shitty manager and sometimes relationships break down. Suddenly before you know it HR is involved and it escalates. This can be very uncomfortable and very threatening.

My guidance is to do two things.

1. Document the conversations you have with your manager.
So your memory won't help you. When you start to feel like something's going wrong, document everything that is said. 

2. Get support and perspective from your network.
Think of your network within the organization in which you work. Who else could you talk to that could perhaps help you gain perspective on the problems that you face? Or, could help you work your way through it?

Think of a person you go to, and explain what is happening. Share your perspective. Ask if there could something else be going on? Are you missing something? What guidance and tips do you have for you to help you deal with this situation?
They know the individuals involved, and the organisation and can give you valuable support at this time.

Hopefully, it won't come to this and steps one to four will be enough. Being proactive and using these steps will help you proactively deal with any situation you may face with your manager and have the confidence to build a stronger relationship with them.
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Hi There!
I'm Helen Bryant

I'm a corporate trainer and coach. On a mission to share the valuable collaboration and leadership lessons to help you thrive in the new world of work.
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