Your relationship with your boss is often one of the most tricky relationships you have to manage at work. Don't outshine, but impress with your performance; build a strong rapport, but don't become overly familiar. The task is a 100 times more difficult as fluid organisational hierarchies come to dominate the corporate landscape. What were once clearly-defined norms for interacting with your superiors are now much less readily decipherable.

Challenging bosses come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and there are no straightforward solutions. However, it can help to determine where your boss stands on a general spectrum of "difficulty". You can then take steps to understand how to mitigate the impact of their behaviour on you and your career.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of difficult boss:

  1. The bully, who has harassing behaviour
  2. The problem personality, who is harder than normal to get on with
  3. The difficult boss, who has bursts of more difficult than normal behaviour

The bully

The bully boss is one whose behaviour can be:

  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Verbally abusive
  • Sabotaging, where their conduct prevents work from getting done

Where you're facing a bully boss, it's important to start keeping note of the incidences that occur. Record exactly what was said and done, the time and date it happened, and who else was present. If you doubt the extent of the bullying behaviours, reviewing all the incidences together may help you form an opinion. This journal will be invaluable if you decide to discuss the situation with the boss in question, your HR department, your trade union, or an employment lawyer.

Seek outside, independent counsel. As a first port of call, it's useful to get an expert opinion on the nature of what you've been experiencing. Here, an occupational psychologist or consultant who sees private clients may be useful. Clients who've shared their difficult workplace experiences with us say that it helped to be listened to by someone who wasn't involved with the situation or their organisation (including trade unions). They valued being able to voice their experience, while not being judged as victims, weak, or in any of the terms their bully used (useless, incompetent, a failure, etc.). Likewise, they report feeling more supported when someone else just knows about the experience they're having.

Important questions you might want to ask yourself if you face a bullying boss are:

  • What control does my boss have and exercise over my interests?
  • What might the ramifications of the overall experience be for my career?
  • Does this boss' impact on my career constitute material damage to me or my prospects?
  • What do I want to do about it?
  • What can I do to get through the experience?

The problem personality

The problem personality is a boss whose behaviour does not constitute bullying, but whose ongoing behaviour may indicate you're dealing with someone who's generally not easy to be around or work with.

In this situation the main question to ask yourself is: Can I deal with this behaviour on a long-term basis? Many times this may boil down to two things:

  1. How does your boss' difficult behaviour sit with you? If you can let the way they behave go, it might not be a problem. Here, it's important that you have an active awareness of your personal limits. Can you put up with this for 6 months, 2 years or indefinitely? Where do you draw the line?

  2. How does your boss' behaviour impact your day-to-day work? And your overall career development? You might be able to put up with your boss' behaviour, but if it constantly undermines you or overall team performance, you might not want to stick around in the long term.

How you view and tolerate your boss' difficult behaviour determines whether you should consider moving jobs or not.

The difficult boss

The difficult boss is someone who is generally fine to be around, but who might have phases or bursts of behaviour, which it's challenging to deal with. The difficult boss is reasonably common. Adopting some strategies for when these phases come up usually helps. Here, think about the nature and incidence of these tougher than usual phases. Some questions that may help you develop useful strategies include:

  • What correlates with your boss' tricky behaviour?
  • What is your role, if any, in their tricky behaviour?
  • What does their tricky behaviour bring up for you? What could you do on your side to reduce the intensity and/or frequency with which you have this response?
  • Where the relationship with your boss is robust enough, speak with them. Be gentle rather than too direct - your boss may not know that their behaviour is a problem.
  • Where appropriate to your boss' "level of difficulty", how can you empathise with them?
  • What steps can you take for yourself to ride out their difficult bursts?

What's the conclusion here?

Identify what type of boss you have, how it may impact your career development, and your personal tolerance for their behaviour. It's no good tolerating a difficult boss, if it exacts a too high a personal or professional toll on you. Equally, their behaviour may not be a big "sacrifice" for the aspects of your job that work for you.

Recommended Insights

work life

Coming Out of a Tailspin with Grace

6 practices to support you out of turbulent periods.

work life

Achieving Effective Work-Life Boundaries

10 ways to delineate clearer spacio-temporal boundaries.

career change

Get Granular About Your Career Change

Consider the full implications of your career change before you set out.

career choice

Hunting for The Golden Slipper

Learnings about career choice from the Grimm Brothers' Cinderella.

Most Popular


Build a Bridge to Your New Team

Advice for new leaders facing a disengaged team.

job search

How Does Your Interviewer Like It?

Know who you'll be interacting with and how it matters.

career choice

What Drives the Creation of Entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurial intent and national characteristics.