Hard-to-please bosses come in many forms, but they have a few things in common: They can be tough to get along with, hard to please, and ultimately, can make going to work absolutely miserable. So when it comes to finding fulfillment in your job despite a negative leader, it’s essential to learn how to deal with a difficult boss to maintain your composure, your joy, and yes, even your sanity.
Charlene Rymsha, a millennial burnout expert, explains that some common conflict issues boil down to a boss’ misuse of power. For instance, she has clients who’ve been called out in front of co-workers or customers, or scolded for not completing tasks correctly when only vague instructions were given. Further, she says, “There is a tendency for bosses to think younger professionals will say ‘yes’ to anything, so unscrupulous bosses will dump extra work on their already full plates.” (And to be clear, if your company leadership crosses the line into territory that’s toxic, a job change may be in order.)
Ahead, coaches and career experts share their best strategies for dealing with bosses who are critical, moody, impossible to please, or just plain unpleasant. Implement these tips to improve your professional relationships and achieve a healthier and happier work-life balance, overall.
1. De-Personalize The Situation
“When we’re in the thick of a difficult moment at work, it’s easy to take everything hyper-personally,” admits anxiety coach Amanda Huggins. While it’s important to listen to constructive criticism, try to objectively consider whether it’s really your performance — or if your boss has unrealistic work expectations. “Give yourself space to clearly sit with what’s bothering you,” she recommends. “If there are fundamental disagreements between the two of you (i.e., your boss explicitly disagrees with your boundaries on unplugging), listen to your intuition.”
On the flip side, Avery Roth, a career coach, says your own insecurities may be making you extra sensitive to your boss’ critiques. “Work on yourself to understand that the issue is partly about the way you’re perceiving things,” she suggests. “Our relationships with our bosses often mirror our relationships with one or more of our parents, and when we can see this, we are freed to work on our reactions and change our behavior.”
2. Set Some Boundaries
Contrary to popular belief, Rymsha says it’s okay to politely say “no” to your supervisor, especially if their requests have begun burning you out (for instance, if they want you to be available after work hours, or your tasks are beginning to overwhelm you.) “This initially feels very scary, yet with practice, my clients have experienced a gain of self-empowerment and heightened level of respect from their bosses,” she explains. “[Saying ‘no’] helps to keep the power dynamic in check and workload more manageable.”
Huggins advises setting boundaries, something most of her clients have trouble doing. “When we’re not clear on what our boundaries are, it’s easy to get taken advantage of by a difficult boss (whether that’s their intention or not),” she says. “Identify what your boundaries are — leaving by 6.p.m., taking a full hour for lunch, working (or not working) on specific projects — and practice using them.” With that said, Huggins adds that it’s key to stay solution-oriented by figuring out ways to maintain your work performance. “The right leaders will work with you to help you feel more comfortable at work and still get the job done. If a boss isn’t willing to hear your boundaries, that’s a big red flag.”
3. Focus on Performance, Not Friendship
It’s a simple, but sometimes hard-to-swallow fact: Your boss doesn’t have to like you in a friendly way … and that’s okay, as long as your work is being respected. “Just like making friends or building romantic relationships, it never works when we try to get someone to like us,” says Huggins. “Be yourself, find joy in what you’re doing, and allow those energies to lead.”
“I also suggest capitalizing on performance reviews to identify if there are any areas that need improvement,” she continues. “Often, difficult bosses are more focused on performance than friendship in the workplace, so having an open conversation about ways in which you can work with them better is a great way to build trust and strengthen the workplace relationship.”
4. Find a Support System
If your boss isn’t your biggest cheerleader, there’s not much you can do to change it. Instead, Belma McCaffrey CEO and founder of Work Bigger, a resource for those looking to change their careers, recommends building a support system amongst colleagues. “Find allies within your organization that you trust — both peers and higher-ups who can support you and serve as mentors,” she says. “You’ll need a community around you, which will make you feel less alone, and you’ll want your allies to share your work and accomplishments so that you’re not relying solely on your boss.” Just remember to keep it positive, as venting and gossiping can fester into low workplace morale.
5. Trust Your Intuition
Above all else, if you feel like you’re having a hard time getting along with your boss, it’s likely not just you. “No, you’re not crazy,” assures Chae Reid, CEO at Moving Rhythms, LLC, a dance company. “Other people have noticed [that your boss is difficult], too. If your gut tells you that a person is going too far, you’re probably right.”
Huggins agrees, adding that if your intuition is telling you that your workplace is toxic — perhaps reinforced by your boss — it might be time to look for opportunities elsewhere. “Many of my clients have struggled with leaving a difficult work environment because they feared there might not be another opportunity, and they’ve wound up staying in an unhealthy environment for far too long,” she says.
First step: Let go of counter-productive assumptions such as “I won’t find another job” or “I just don’t have enough experience to leave yet.” “Get very clear on where your fear or lack mindset may be keeping you in a toxic environment for longer than you need to, and then make a commitment to changing your situation, STAT,” she advises. “If your job is impeding on your quality of life or your emotional capacity, it’s time to go.”