How Do You Deal with a Difficult Boss?

By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.

Have you had any personal experiences in dealing with a cranky boss? Most people have.  What did you do about it? This was a topic that wanted to address in their new format called, “Answers on the Street.” Their producers, who invited me to be their psychology expert for some of the episodes that were to have a human-interest focus, contacted me. I went into their studios to film the episodes on a variety of topics and this is one of them. I’ve included here the information that I provided when asked the following questions. An edited video version of the interview may be found by logging onto:

What are some positive approaches to dealing with a cranky boss?

  • Most people would probably indicate some level of unhappiness with their boss from time to time but still find their boss at least tolerable.
  • Even if your boss isn’t intolerable, odds are there will be cranky days.
  • The first thing is to assess whether the situation is a one-time deal or ongoing.
  • If your boss is generally on good behavior and just happens to snap for one day, you should probably cut him/her some slack.  ·Maybe your boss is simply having a bad day for some reason and his/her cranky mood will be gone tomorrow.
  • It can be helpful to try to understand the reasons for your boss’s behavior.
  • You don’t have to become his/her confidant or therapist but it is helpful to exercise some empathy and give him/her the opportunity to change.
  • If his/her difficult behavior is a result of stress overload rather than character flaws, the chances are good that the problem can be modified.

Should I call him/her on it?

  • Be discerning and decisive about whether it’s in your best interest to deal with your boss about his/her behavior.
  • Some bosses just don’t want to hear about their shortcomings no matter what approach is used.
  • Take into consideration the responsibilities and stresses riding on your boss’s shoulders.
  • If the boss treats everyone in the same cranky or demeaning manner, chances are the problem lies with the boss.
  • On the other hand, if the boss seems to have a problem just with you, perhaps the issue is more with you than with the boss.

Should I confront my boss? How?

  • If your boss is a curmudgeon and is cranky every day of the week and takes out his/her frustrations on his/her employees, you may need to take it to the next level.
  • One technique is to speak with him or her one-on-one in private.
  • Request an appointment to speak with your boss so that he/she doesn’t feel ambushed.
  • Think about what you wish to convey to him/her. Write it down beforehand so that you’re clear about what you want to communicate.
  • The confrontation should be non-belligerent and polite.
  • Avoid statements that begin with “you” because that tends to create an accusative tone and can put one on the defensive.
  • Use phrases like “I feel…” and “I want to let you know…” or “There’s something that I’d like to clear with you…?

Should I be aggressive?

  • What you don’t want to do is engage with the same negative behavior as the boss.
  • In all cases, discussions with a difficult boss should take place using a positive approach.  It has a better chance of leading to positive results.
  • If you’re the victim of a scathing attack in front of your peers, don’t react in the same manner.  It will only make matters worse.
  • Manage your own negative emotions regarding your boss’s behavior so that you don’t engage in self-defeating behavior like counter attacking or passive aggression.

Should I be submissive?

  • Don’t be a victim allowing yourself to submit to being mistreated on an ongoing basis.
  • Be assertive and confront the situation giving it a fair chance of being corrected.
  • A reasonable boss will respect you for speaking your mind and bringing your issues to the surface in an accountable and forthright fashion.

Should I take it higher?

  • You can speak with your boss’s boss, but typically only if the situation is extremely unbearable and you haven’t gotten results from your attempts to deal directly with your boss.
  • The tricky part comes when your boss has already warned his boss that you are coming.  This can make for a ripe set-up with you on the short end of the stick.
  • Sometimes the way to avoid a problem is to let as little time elapse between talking to your boss, evaluating whether the situation has been resolved and then talking to your boss’s boss.
  • Seeking assistance from your Human Resources Department may be the way to go.

How do I assert myself with an abusive superior?

  • If the boss’s behavior is a result of a chronically hostile and abusive style of interacting the chances are less positive that the behavior will change.
  • You may want to seek council from a trusted mentor or Human Resources professional to evaluate your options.
  • It can be helpful to make a list of the issues that require attention to assist you in recounting the areas of concern.
  • Sometimes writing a friendly letter to a boss can give him/her the opportunity to reflect prior to dealing with you about your concerns.

When is it time to leave?

  • The bottom line is that you need to determine whether the situation is fixable or whether searching for a new job is a better alternative.
  • It’s conceivable that a boss will be considered more valuable to the company than the subordinate, if the situation blows up, so you may end up job-hunting either way.
  • The rule is:  If you can’t save someone from their misery; at least save yourself from their misery.

Anything else I should do/know/avoid?

  • When dealing with a boss’s criticism attempt to treat it as valuable information about how to do better, not as a personal attack.
  • Endeavor to separate your personal ego from your business persona.
  • Attempt to view criticism as an opportunity to work together with your boss on a development plan.
  • Avoid power struggle and seek the spirit of alliance utilizing the skills of cooperation, compromise, communication and compassion.

Can you give me 4 or 5 specific suggestions on HOW to approach a boss about his or her crankiness?

  • Attempt to understand the root cause of the problem.
  • Keep your energy in check.  Maintain composure, poise and balance.
  • Discern the best strategy for confronting the situation concerning your boss.
  • Walk in the door with your facts straight and be prepared to present them honorably and courteously.
  • Be fair but also feel personally empowered with your approach in order to create the leverage to achieve your goal.

What things should one say and do “IN THE MOMENT” to get the best outcome?

  • Take control over your emotions.
  • Remember to breathe and feel grounded in your body.
  • Your words have power.  Speak from your heart and don’t lose your head.
  • There’s no need to churn or embellish the facts; speak to the point.
  • Avoid drama and seek a dignified solution to the problem.
  • Give your boss the benefit of a doubt that he/she will be reasonable and want to consider what you have to say and furthermore, also desires a satisfactory outcome to the problem.