If you were to shove two random people into a lift that was about to get stuck for 10 hours, what’s the chances of them coming out friends at the end?
If you’re an optimist, you’ll likely say high – what better way to get to know a complete stranger and find interesting common ground?
But if you’re the kind of person who tends to get embroiled in office politics and finds yourself at constant loggerheads with your boss, you’ll probably be thinking that there’s actually little chance of them both getting out alive.
Some people just don’t mix, and for many of us, our bosses – who often seem to think they have carte blanche to tell us what to do – are all too frequently the ones who are making our lives a living hell.
At first glance, our options seem limited. We could quietly sulk, stewing in our own misery; we could enlist the support of other employees who share our dislike of the monster in question. Or we could find a new job – which, if we otherwise like our workplace, is a pretty dramatic solution.
There is, of course, a third option: deal with the issue. Find a way to resolve the conflict, maybe establish some middle ground, and walk away with the dignity of both parties – that’s you and your boss – intact.
But that’s easier said than done, right?
‘It’s not so much about how the boss behaves, it’s about how you manage your response to it,’ insists Louisa Weinstein, a conflict resolution expert and author of the new book, The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution. ‘Also, there are often issues behind the boss’ behaviour that you might not have considered – if they are a narcissist and always craving positive feedback, for example, perhaps there is an element of fear behind that. Do they need to look good?’
In fact, says Weinstein, there are a multitude of layers that need to be unravelled when you lock horns with a demanding boss. And no matter what the issue, she suggests that you need to go through a very specific process before you’ll get anywhere near a resolution. Here are the key steps:
Identify the conflict
Some bosses just leave a bad taste in the mouth, but if you want things to improve it’s important to begin by drilling down into exactly what the problem is. ‘Is it that you don’t like how they are behaving, or is it more of a ground-level, getting-the-job-done conflict?’ says Weinstein. Ascertain exactly what the issue is, and write down how it is affecting you on a daily basis.
Ask yourself how you are currently reacting to the situation
The response you have currently adopted – which may well be anger or frustration – is probably not the only possibility open to you. Weinstein suggests you might be able to choose to accommodate the boss, to compromise, to compete or to collaborate – instead of ‘fighting like with like’. Or, she says, you may opt for trying to ignore/avoid the situation. ‘Ask, “What is my reaction, and is there a better one?” she suggests. If you can find a better response, then adopting it means that you get to feel like you are exercising a little control over things – and this may be enough to make the problem diminish. But if you can’t live with a different option, then the next logical step will be a strategic conversation with the boss – which means a few more steps to go through...
Be true to the facts
‘In conflict resolution, we use something called a resolution framework, ‘ says Weinstein, ‘and one of the key things you need in order for this to work is to make sure you have your facts straight. What, exactly, has the manager’s behaviour been?’ Document this and make sure you keep a record of what is real, because people can very easily – and very understandably – embellish things.
Consider possible outcomes of your talk
What do you actually want, asks Weinstein? What are your best- and worst-case scenarios out of this? ‘Think carefully about what success would look like so when you go into the conversation you’re not just talking into the air, you’re very clear about what would be a good result and what wouldn’t work.’
Face to face
‘You need to have a clear negotiation strategy,’ says Weinstein, ‘and you need to know your walk-away point.’ The more prepared you are for the negotiation, the better you can manage the boss, she says, because it’s very unlikely that he/she will have made any preparations. ‘If they have, that’s even better,’ says Weinstein, ‘because you’re more likely to see each other’s perspective and you start to see a bigger picture.’ Tip: put some thought into how you set up this meeting. Far better to send an email asking for a weekly catch-up than one headed: ‘We have a problem: let’s talk.’
Keep an open mind
However outrageous the boss’ behaviour, Weinstein says that if you can empathise with them on some level you will start to get underneath where they are coming from. ‘Also,’ she adds, ‘when you start to empathise with someone, they start to relax a little, and become less dogged in their approach.’ The great irony, she says, is that the people who annoy us most are usually those that we are most similar to. ‘When we can identify this, it improves our ability to empathise with them and puts us in a stronger position because we then turn into the adult in the situation and take back a bit of control,’ Weinstein says.
And if all else fails...
Weinstein isn’t a fan of bringing HR in to deal with office gripes and power struggles because, she feels, they can sometimes seem to take on the role of a ‘parent’ – and thus decide who is right and wrong. In cases where HR are not trained mediators, or are seen as being partial to one side, she recommends asking them to bring in a mediator who specialises in conflict resolution – her day job, in fact – because these people take judgement out of proceedings and let the two parties negotiate their dispute using a tried-and-tested process.
Companies that have an existing early resolution scheme, she says, are well suited to doing this. ‘Workplace mediation is really effective, because instead of months or years of fighting and going to HR and building factions, you get it sorted out in a day,’ says Weinstein. ‘And at the end of it, the two parties often find that they can work together. They might never be best buddies, but they can learn to work alongside each other, respect each other and let go of the past.’
Also read: How to deal with professional setbacks
Also read: How self-evaluation can help to put you back on track
3 types of bad bosses
Feeling emboldened? Good – your tyrant of a boss won’t know what’s about to hit him/her. And just to give you more ammo, we asked Emma Jefferys (emmajefferyscoaching.com), a life and business coach who offers international coaching, to share her tips on dealing with three specific types of nightmare managers...
The boss who never gives positive feedback
‘Recognition is an important psychological need,’ says Jefferys, ‘and yet many leaders underestimate the power and necessity of positive feedback – which can result in employees feeling unappreciated, unmotivated and undervalued.’
There may be many reasons why your boss never sings your praises: the first is he/she is simply too busy to really take notice of what you are up to: they’re actually confident you’re getting the job done. ‘If so, it’s up to you to put your achievements on their radar,’ says Jefferys. ‘Put a regular catch-up in their diary so that you have more chances to share what you’ve been up to than your annual performance review. Asking for their feedback will make them feel valued, too, so it’s a win-win.’
Alternatively, it might be that your boss has not been used to being praised in their own career. You can set the example by managing up and providing authentic appreciation where appropriate. ‘Tell your boss when you think they’ve done something great,’ says Jefferys.
‘And if the truth of the matter is that praising employees is just not your boss’s style, then you may need to look elsewhere for the validation you need.’ Keeping a ‘Kudos File’ is an excellent start. ‘Keep a note of all the good stuff said by colleagues and clients throughout the year so you can draw on it when needed. And perhaps there is someone else who can act as a mentor to you, who can provide feedback on your work aside from your boss? Many people are thrilled to be asked.’
The boss who sets unrealistic deadlines
‘A big task with a small timeframe equals a whole lot of stress,’ says Jefferys. ‘As a one-off, it can be an adrenaline-fuelled test of what we are capable of when pushed. But when it happens over and over again this sort of pressure is detrimental to both mental and physical health and will quickly erode any form of job satisfaction or work/life balance.’
The key to tackling this workplace problem, she says, is to try and get to the bottom of why it is happening. Is it that your boss genuinely doesn’t understand what needs to take place in order for you to deliver the work to a standard you are happy with? If so, says Jefferys, a direct conversation to explain this and see if there is any leeway around timings is a good place to start.
‘Make sure this is led from a position of experience, not insecurity,’ she suggests. ‘It is not that you don’t believe you can’t do it, but that in order to do it well and not compromise on quality, then your experience tells you it will need an extra two days.’
A practical point: it’s worth remembering that sometimes deadlines by their very nature can overwhelm us, says Jefferys, especially when we don’t know exactly what the job will entail. ‘Try breaking down a big project into smaller deliverables and see if it feels achievable then.’
The boss who thinks holidays are for wimps
‘Time off is super important,’ says Jefferys. ‘We all need time to rest, recharge, rebalance and recalibrate. And far from detracting from your career, these regular breaks will give you the energy, focus and perspective to achieve even more and prevent burnout.’
When this need for time out is not supported in the workplace it can be very stressful, she says – and even create feelings of guilt about booking holidays.
‘The first thing to remember is that each of us sees the world differently,’ says Jefferys. ‘We have our own ‘map’ which is shaped by our values, experiences and beliefs. No two maps are the same and yet they are all valid and good – so long as we don’t try to impose our map onto someone else.
‘If your boss doesn’t see holidays as important to them, then that’s fine. Whatever the reason, they are entitled to hold this view – but not to impose it onto others.’
It is important, she asserts, that you are able to stay true to your map – and to book your holidays guilt-free.
‘Keep booking your holidays, and let the boss’ comments wash over you,’ says Jefferys. ‘You can even acknowledge that you are sorry they feel this way but that holidays are of great importance to you – and that you’ll be more productive as a result of the break.’
If, however, the boss is making it difficult for you to take time off, Jefferys suggests sitting down with him/her and your diary and agreeing the dates together. ‘Put forward your plans and then be prepared for some wiggle-room if there are business issues to work around,’ she says.