How to Deal With a Difficult Boss
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
For years, millions of Americans spent their Thursday evenings engaged in a show about a paper company. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? But “The Office” was really about relationships – the good ones, the bad ones, the cringe-worthy ones. This award-winning sitcom reflected a truth known by its myriad of viewers: When the majority of your days are spent in an office, what matters most there are the people.
While a Michael Scott-type manager is an unlikely scenario for most of us, it is probable that at some point, we’ll end up with a difficult boss (and not necessarily one who’s so good-hearted). An authority figure who is unreasonable or difficult to get along with poses a real challenge.* We want to be kind and respectful, but we also want to be treated with kindness and respect. We’re willing to put in the hours, but we also need healthy boundaries. What’s to be done?
Pray for them. It’s the easiest advice to give and the hardest to follow! Jesus invites us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors(Matthew 5:43-44). Prayer for another can help us to see that the other person is also a child of God, wounded by sin and in need of healing. Pray for grace each day as you enter the office, and don’t be afraid to call on your guardian angel and patron saints for particular intercession.
Acknowledge your own failures. Have you given in to office gossip or unnecessary criticism? It’s really tempting to feel like we deserve the right to complain about a difficult boss, but the truth is that gossip just creates a cycle of negativity among our co-workers and in our own souls. Thankfully, we have the sacrament of confession, which offers us the space to acknowledge our faults and receive the grace to begin afresh.
Seek wise guidance. Instead of gossiping to a co-worker who can’t really help you, try to find someone who can. It may be a human resources (HR) rep or someone entirely outside the situation, like a spouse, friend, mentor or spiritual director. It’s important to have a space where you can vent your frustration without causing harm to the difficult person and where you can process your emotions in a healthy way. A wise guide will be a good listener who can empathize and help you to brainstorm some positive ways to move forward.
Be proactive rather than reactive. Rather than wait for your boss to call you into his or her office with yet another list of unreasonable demands, request your own meeting. Try to phrase things positively instead of airing a list of grievances or clamming up in fear. You could begin with something like, “I value my job here, and I believe that I’m contributing to the company. But I’m concerned about burning out, for these reasons…”
Be very clear about what you hope to achieve in the meeting. Do you want fewer responsibilities? More flexible working hours? A pay raise? Whatever your goal is, be prepared to provide reasons for your request. If your boss is constantly throwing new projects at you without checking your availability, keep a list of every request and the time you spend on each task. If you’re always working overtime, log your hours and the projects that required them. If you want higher wages, come prepared to explain why you’ve earned them.
Of course, before you head into any conversation that holds potential conflict, it’s crucial to know yourself and how you tend to respond. Do you tend to turn into a doormat the minute you feel threatened? Or do you get fired up and say things you don’t mean?
As silly as it might feel, take the time to role-play the conversation with a friend. Try to imagine both worst-case scenarios and surprising ones. What if your boss says no to everything? What if he or she offers you a different position? You can’t plan for every contingency, but the more you’ve considered the options, the more likely you are to feel calm and prepared when you enter the meeting.
If your boss continues to be unreasonable, it’s time to find recourse through other available channels. This probably means HR, but if that’s not an option, request to speak with another manager or someone who is in a position of influence. All the same rules apply: Be proactive about approaching them, seek positive help rather than an opportunity for excessive complaining and prepare for various outcomes.
Finally, if nothing else works, you can ask yourself the most foundational question: Why are you doing what you’re doing? What’s your bottom line for being in that job? Are you in a position to leave if the situation doesn’t get better? Or do you need to stay for now, because others are depending on you? If it’s the former, it may be time to begin a new job search. If it’s the latter, you can offer up the difficult situations, knowing that your suffering is in service of something much more important, and it can even hold spiritual benefits for those you love.
*This article is not about authority figures who engage in any kind of abusive behavior. They need to be reported to the proper channels immediately.
Kerri Christopher is a life consultant. She helps individuals learn to discern well, discover their priorities, and make plans to move forward. From “what am I doing with my life?” to “why is my closet always a mess?,” she loves helping people sift through the tough questions by integrating the wisdom and truths of the Christian life with the best practices of human “self-help.” Kerri has both an MA and STL in theology and has taught at universities in the US and UK. With her British husband, she lives in London, where she enjoys discovering cozy pubs and beautiful architecture. You can find her online at Clarity Life Consulting.