Think in English with Adah

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Adah’s 5-step Approach for Dealing with Difficult Bosses

We can choose to join the company that we like, but we can’t choose the people that we work for. Some bosses talk a lot but don’t do much. Others always criticize the work that you did and never take credit for your ideas. Some are controlling and rude. Others are indifferent and unsupportive when you are sick. Difficult people do exist in every workplace. Difficult bosses make the workplace a toxic pool for you to swim through. 

Would you just surrender to their constant backstabbing and waste meaningless time in watching your back while you should be fully engaged in your project? Or would you just ignore your difficult boss at all? I would say NO to both questions. Remember that you are hired to WORK as a professional, but not to suffer a bad boss. If the negativity of the difficult boss begins to make a big impact on your productivity, it must be addressed, not just as an interpersonal problem but as an issue affecting your project progress.

For those who are ready to address a difficult boss, here is my 5-step framework for dealing with a difficult boss.

1. Invite your boss to a private discussion.  When you approach your boss, make sure that you point it out that the discussion really matters to you. Try to arrange a short discussion instead of a long one because it is very unlikely to commit the person to a 1-hour discussion.

For example:

“Hi, Mark. I would like to have a discussion with you about something I have been thinking for a long time. This is really important to me. Do you have 15 minutes today?”

2. Talk about the impact of their behavior on you and stick to “I” statements. They may never be aware of the impact that their actions or words have on you so it is really important for you to let them know it. When you talk about the impact, focus on your experience and emotions instead of pointing your finger at them and criticizing them.

“I felt quite disappointed when you blamed me for the mistake in my last report during our team’s weekly meeting. The reason for me to feel that way is because I didn’t mean to make the mistake. I felt really bad after the meeting and this has begun to affect my work productivity.”

3. Now hear what they have to say about their impact on you and acknowledge their understanding. They may be shocked to know the spell that they cast over you. This could be the first time for someone to point out the negative influence they have on their coworkers. Your feedback should trigger them to reflect on their behavior. Give them some time to think. Since most people are not evil-natured, they may show some sympathy to your experience. They may be more willing to know what you will say next. But be sure to stay positive, supportive and pleasant throughout the conversation. Don’t turn this into an outlet for personal criticism; instead, make it an opportunity to improve work productivity and to reinforce professionalism for the both of you. After the boss reacts to your comments, you may say:

“I am glad that you understand how I felt. I feel much better now after you listened.”

4. Try to reach agreement about further actions. The purpose of any meaningful discussions is to reach agreement about real actions. You the problem-solver should make positive suggestions about how to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future. Make sure that you don’t cause your boss to lose face by using questions instead of statements in your suggestions.

“I should be more careful while writing the weekly reports. I am thinking of making one change to our work procedure. What do you think if I send the weekly report to you for editing before I send it out to the other team members? This can prevent mistakes in the future and I can also learn from you about how to write a great report. Do you think this is a good idea?”

5.  Decide whether you need to follow up on the discussion. If your suggestions work out well and their behavior has gotten better, you will find that both of you are in a win-win situation. However, if the situation hasn’t changed or even gotten worse, you may determine whether a follow-up discussion is necessary. Or you may need to involve others, such as your boss’ supervisor or another colleague who may have the same issue with your boss, in a 3-way or 4-way discussion. To protect yourself, be sure to ask them to keep the information source anonymous when they discuss it with your boss.

You have the right to build professional work relationships and to reinforce a fair competition environment for yourself.  Dealing with difficult people can be challenging but take this as one of the obstacles that you have to overcome on your way to becoming a mature professional. You will win if you try.

For those desperate employees who have to deal with a lot of requests or favors asked by their boss, you may read my previous entry:  How to deal with requests from your boss or client?

Vocabulary bank:

1. to take credit (for something) (phrase) to praise for something you have done or achieved

2. toxic (adj) poisonous and harmful to people, animals, or the environment

3. to surrender (v) to say officially that you have been defeated and will stop fighting

4. to backstab (v) to say or do unpleasant things in order to harm someone’s reputation

5. negativity (n) the attitude of someone who always sees the bad aspects of a situation

6. to cast a spell over someone/ something (idiom) to have a magic influence over someone/ something

7. evil-natured (adj) bad in nature

8. to reinforce (v) to make a situation, process, or type of behavior stronger and more likely to continue


January 11th, 2012 Posted by adah at 03:11pm | 1 - Adah's Communication Camp | 2 comments


  1. I happen to have difficult colleague at work. He is always getting over other’s business, but not taking care of his own task. This kind of people is very anoying, you know. He interupts other’s work and cooperation. For example, when you r discussing with someone who is assigned the same task with u, he always breaks into it, and adds his comment or something else.

    Comment by anonymous | 2012年03月13日

  2. We don’t have to like the people that we work with. You need to learn to handle this type of coworkers by following some of my advice. Or sometimes, ignorance is a powerful tool too. Try to ignore this person when he cuts in your conversation with the others.

    Comment by adah | 2012年04月16日

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