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Managing a Difficult Boss (Part I)
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2.9 from 145 votes

Date: October 11 2008

My last article, Pruning Thorns from Roses: HR's Role in Managing Disruptive Key Employees,1 explored approaches for managing difficult key employees. Several readers of this article requested that I examine what they felt was a more difficult and pervasive workplace reality: dealing with a difficult boss.

How big is the problem?

A difficult boss is the greatest obstacle most workers will encounter in their professional life. The unmanaged impact of a daily encounter with him or her can be devastating to a person's career, worth, health and overall well-being.

A short article such as this is insufficient for exploring the range of impact a difficult boss can have on an individual or organization. So we will explore only two aspects: health and financial impacts.

There is hardly a more potent and pervasive workplace stressor than a difficult supervisor. A
recent survey by Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health
Association) identified employment issues as the third main source of stress in American life.2 SkillSoft, a leading online learning provider, commissioned a third party to examine the top ten stressors and irritants in the workplace. Six of the ten irritants--managers changing their minds about what they want, lack of support from managers, pressure from managers, feeling put upon by managers, interruptions by managers and bullying behavior by managers--are related to the boss's action or behavior.3 All of these issues could be managed in a healthy relationship with an effective boss.

Consider the following health impacts of stress from an MHA fact sheet:
• Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, and stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
• Chronic stress may double the risk of heart attack.
• Chronic stress weakens the immune system and makes people vulnerable to a host of
• Fifty to eighty percent of all medical illnesses reported to physicians have a strong emotional or stress-related component.4

Bottom line: a difficult boss is a source of high stress, and years or even months of ineffectively managing the relationship with him or her can take a significant toll on a person's health.

The impact of a difficult boss on an organization is equally significant. In their analysis of two extensive Gallup Organization studies, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman suggest that organizations look first to their managers if they have a turnover problem.5 The relationship with a difficult boss is the foremost reason that workers leave their employers.6
Turnover costs are estimated to be 20 to 50 percent of the total compensation for a position. This gives organizations a way to measure the direct impact of a difficult boss on the bottom line.

Among other factors, stress is a causal and catalytic factor in mental illness. Neuroscientists from Harvard Medical School and Mclean Hospital have shown that long-term exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol and corticotropin-releasing hormones, results in the anxiety that often comes with depression.7 The MHA reports that mental health illnesses cost the United States $150 billion in lost productivity each year, and US businesses foot up to $44 billion of this bill. The American Institute of Stress adds that workplace stress causes about one million employees to miss work each day.8 The American Hospital Association (AHA) reports that employers lose 26 days per year to employees affected by stress and mental health illness. By comparison,
average lost workdays for other conditions include cancer (17 percent), respiratory disorders (15 percent), and migraine headaches (11 percent). The AHA notes that mental illness is the most costly health benefit category for employers.9

The toxicity exuded by a difficult boss is to a business culture what cancer is to the human body. As it metastasizes it destroys the labyrinth of trust, hope, fairness and justice.

In spite of the foregoing facts, there is nary a mention of the impact of difficult managers in
many organizations. While there are literally thousands of seminars on how to deal with
disruptive employees, you will be hard pressed to find an effective program on dealing with a difficult boss. Does this mean we should ignore the ugliness and its consequences?

What category of difficulty does your boss fall into?

Much has been written about types of difficult bosses. Deceptive, deviant, abusive, insatiable, prejudiced, aggressive, manipulative, vindictive, compulsive, rigid and narcissistic types come to mind. Just about every worker can add to the list based on personal experience or observation.

Every supervisor will exhibit a dysfunctional or toxic behavior at some point. The focus here is on bosses who repeatedly exhibit a dysfunctional behavior or a pattern of dysfunctional
behaviors. What is germane to understand is the intentionality factor in your boss's difficult
tendencies. You need to know if your boss is being intentionally unreasonable in his or her
dealings with you. This knowledge will enable you to determine an approach that will be
effective in managing your relationship with him or her.

Although human intentions are usually difficult to pin down, you can most likely determine if
your manager is being intentionally difficult either through direct communication or by
observation and objective analysis of your circumstance.

Some bosses will be open and direct in their resentment toward a subordinate. Here are a few statements that managers have made to their employees: "Stop trying. As long as I am here, you're not going anywhere fast." "No matter what you do I'll still hate your guts. I guess it's a chemistry thing." "You bought a Mercedes? I always thought we paid you too much. Well, the party is over." "What are you trying to do? Show you're better than me? I wouldn't be in this position if I didn't know how to manage people like you." These statements would not be memorable except for the fact that the managers backed up their words with unmistakably negative actions and behavior.

In an increasingly litigious age, most bosses are guarded in their pronouncements. But their actions, over time, will reveal how much resentment they harbor toward those under their authority. Although they may never admit it (a tendency we will explore when we address personal values), some bosses manipulate a subordinate's work scope, schedule, deadlines or outcomes to a malicious end. Others make a point of reprimanding their people publicly. Some employees experience the silent treatment whenever they make a point in meetings. However, as soon as someone else in the same meeting repeats the same idea, the manager breaks out in praise. Difficult bosses will take a magnifying glass to the smallest errors, avoid giving credit when it is due, reassign lucrative or high-profile assignments, choke off financial incentives, make up horror stories, etc. If your boss repeatedly exhibits these types of behavior toward you, especially if you observe that same boss treating others differently, you should be concerned about your boss's intent.

In Part II of this article we will examine how to identify and manage bosses who do not intend to be difficult but frequently come off that way.

The purposefully difficult boss

A purposefully difficult boss will spend the time and energy to create a hostile, if not intolerable, environment. The coworker who once reliably supplied the input you need on ongoing assignments stops returning your calls. The guy in the office next door with whom you regularly had lunch goes out of his way to avoid you during lunch. The office you have occupied for two years is suddenly reassigned to a junior member of your team while you are reseated in a less favorable space. People who utilized your work product for years without question now subject it to forensic examination. For reasons you do not understand, unusually strong and negative reactions pervade the atmosphere when you present a new idea. You are abruptly dropped from meetings you had attended for years. Malicious bosses can be quite effective in recruiting colleagues and other coworkers in their onslaught. If only they harnessed that influence in developing and promoting their staff.

Confused and frustrated, employees often wonder what their boss might have told these colluders to elicit such reactions. This is where labels and stories come into play. "He is not a team player." "She is a saboteur." "He is a spy." "She is a walking time bomb." "She hates men." "He is a misogynist." "She's a rabble rouser." These labels often take on a life of their own, particularly if they originate from a manager in a fairly influential position. Behind every label is a story. Often, however, such stories are outright falsehood or a distortion of facts to create a desired reality.

Consider this true story as told by the late Dr. Robert A. Cook, author and educator. A woman who had four children sought to lease an apartment for her family. She discovered the leasing agent had stopped leasing to families with children. Before she went to the leasing office, she dropped all four of her children at a nearby cemetery. When the leasing agent asked if she had any children, she pulled out a napkin as tears welled up in her eyes. After a few tense moments, she announced that her four children were in the nearby cemetery. Moved with compassion, the agent approved her application. She picked up her children afterward and moved in.10 Although the woman relayed facts to the agent, she was being intentionally deceitful. You may be able to imagine your boss with his or her game face on, seriously relaying a contrived story about you. However, unlike the woman in this story, who told a falsehood in order to get a good home for her children, your boss is not looking to earn you any favors.

Some bosses do whatever it takes to achieve their end and cover their tracks, even if that means staging reality, coaxing others to accept it as truth and defending it at all cost. A legend is told among the Calabari people of West Africa. Sometime in the eighteenth century, shortly before Mary Slessor (1848-1915) facilitated the abrogation of the killing of twins in a neighboring tribe, a feud ensued between two Calabari families. Large and powerful, one of the feuding families produced most of the elders of the land. The other family, made up of mostly albinos, was economically prosperous. Its prosperity was the source of the dispute, as albinos were an anomaly and not the type of people the elders wanted to see atop the food chain.

As bad blood grew, some of the elders arranged to have an albino drowned. The body was found floating in the river. That year, the Calabaris reaped a tremendous harvest. The ruling family purported that the drowned albino brought prosperity to the land, and from that story the practice of casting an albino's corpse into a river began. Afterward, albinos died more frequently. Though some of the people knew that many of the albinos were murdered, prosperity fever gripped them, and the passing of albinos meant great celebrations throughout the land. Some albinos participated in the celebrations.

When the king heard reports of the killings, he disguised his son as an albino and sent him out among the people. Shortly thereafter, the king's son was murdered. Soon news came to him of another prosperity-engendering albino tossing. This time, though, it was his son. This experience caused him to take a stand and put an end to the albino-tossing practice.
To this day, some Calabari people still fear that the albinos will avenge the way they were

A staged reality happens when coworkers are sent to harass you and subsequently accuse you of harassment; when critical personnel on a project are reassigned shortly before you need their input; when key software you need to complete a project is disabled just days before the project is due and you are hounded for tardiness; when pieces of electronic surveillance are stitched together to create an impression that is far from truth. The cumulative damage from events such as these results in dire consequences for individual workers and the employer. Under the aforementioned circumstances, the average coworker can decipher that the boss has crossed ethical lines. Yet, for reasons we will explore, these coworkers continue to serve as instruments of perversion.

Where do you begin?

Why did the Calabari elders go as far as killing albinos? Why did the people who knew the truth keep mute? Why did those who suspected foul play not seek the truth? Why would a boss throw caution to the wind in the quest to humiliate, emasculate, demoralize or ruin someone else's career or life? Why do others wittingly support him or her in that process? Why do senior leaders enable or ignore such behavior? Why are these behaviors so prevalent?

Answers to these questions are rooted in two simple words: personal values. Your values are at the core of who you are. They are the beliefs, principles and experiences that inform your decisions. Personal values are often defined as the guide to achieving your highest priorities. This definition is somewhat incomplete, as your values are in fact your highest priorities. Your personal values are not only a means to an end, they are the ultimate end.
Say your lifelong dream, your so-called highest priority, was to own a Rolls Royce. However,
when someone offered you a stolen RR at an incredibly low price with no possibility of the car being traced, you declined. Your reason is that the offer violated your value of honesty. You value honesty more than the luxury of being cuddled in one of the finest automobiles in the world. Ethical boundaries are set within the confines of personal values. If you accepted the offer, you would have declared by your actions that owning that car trumps your ethos of
honesty, honor and integrity. Greed and personal aggrandizement might be keywords in your personal values list.

What are your personal values? Whether you have suffered at the hands of a mendacious
manager or you are a spectator or an enabler, the answer to that question is germane to how you respond to an intentionally difficult boss. What people do is often remarkably inconsistent with what they would identify, either to themselves or publicly, as their personal values. One reason for this is that most people do not take the time to identify their values and then sincerely assess their actions and behavior in light of those values.

Hyrum Smith, author and developer of the Franklin Day Planner®, tells a story in his seminars that can help you identify your personal values. Titled "Crossing the "I" Beam," the story begins with a 120-foot-long I-beam placed in the street in front of your house. (An I-beam is a steel beam used in construction. It looks like an H when you turn it on its side.) Your neighbors are gawking at it, wondering what kind of person just moved into their neighborhood.

Smith then promises to give you one hundred dollars if you will walk across the beam in two minutes without stepping off either side. Typically, everyone agrees to cross the beam.
The beam is then moved to Manhattan and placed 1,360 feet above the ground between two high-rise buildings. It is raining and windy. This time Smith offers you one million dollars to cross the beam. Through dozens of seminars, no one took this offer. They all valued life more than the money.

Smith then stops being a nice guy. Now you have a two-year-old daughter, and he is holding her by the hair over the edge on the far side of the beam. He says if you do not cross in two minutes he will drop her. Smith reports that at this point in his seminars, a sobering reality sets in. People realize that they value their lives to the point where there are few reasons they would cross the beam. A two-year old son or daughter is one of those reasons. Almost all participants instantaneously choose to cross the beam to rescue their child. One day, however, Smith met a woman who hesitated. She hesitated for so long that other participants started to feel uncomfortable. Some wanted to answer for her by screaming, "Yes!" But she said no, that she would not cross the beam for her two-year-old son. Feeling that an explanation was necessary, she offered that she had eleven other children. If she gave her life for the one child, who would care for the rest? At this point, the tension in the room eased a bit as some people thought her explanation was reasonable.

Devastated by the experience, this woman wept silently through most of the seminar. At the end, she approach Smith and said, "I need to share something with you that I have had to face here for the first time. You need to understand, Hyrum, that the two-year-old child you were going to drop over the edge is a Down's syndrome baby. You made me face the fact that I don't love that child as much as I love my other children. That has devastated me." She added, "I think I would have come across immediately for any of my other children."
This woman came face to face with her core values and she did not like what she saw. Although she would most likely have denied it before this experience, she realized one of her personal values was that she loved her other eleven children more than the Down's syndrome child. As Smith astutely pointed out, this principle had been operating at the subconscious level before it was unearthed in that seminar.11 Becoming aware of it, however, empowered her to modify her behavior accordingly.

When I challenge employees about why they enable, suppress or endure misconduct by
management, they frequently respond in these terms: "I have a kid in college and a mortgage." "I don't want to burn my bridges." "She deserves what she is getting." "It's outside of my control." "Senior management says it's okay." My intent here is not to judge anyone. That would be inappropriate. However, since these responses reflect our deepest values, I encourage you to critically evaluate them to determine whether or not they truly represent what you want your values to be.

There are a few fallacies inherent in the above statements (excuses).

First is argumentum ad baculum, or the argument that if C does not accept D as right, then E. Since E is a punishment on C, D is true. In other words, if I do not go along with what my boss says, or if I challenge my boss's behavior, I will be punished. Therefore, what my boss says and does is right. Although honesty, integrity or fairness are part of my personal values, they have meaning only as long as my job is not at risk. One's true values quickly surface when the stakes are high.

The next fallacy is argumentum ad hominen, or the argument that counters a substantive issue by attacking a person or his or her beliefs. Let's say an employee, Sally, accuses her manager of inappropriate discriminatory behavior. Instead of responding to the specific issue, the manager attacks Sally, calling her arrogant and disrespectful. The label spreads quickly throughout the organization. Others, without having the facts, help to establish Sally's reputation as arrogant and disrespectful.

Then there is the all-too-common argumentum ad verecundiam, or an argument based on
authority. "The Grand Puba said..."; therefore, it must be right. The fact that the evidence before you suggests otherwise is immaterial.

I am sure you can identify other fallacies. The point being underscored is that it is critical to
understand the basis of your decisions, actions and behavior. If they are based on false
assumptions or lies, you owe it to yourself to establish that fact, and determine whether or not it is in line with what you would describe as your true values. If it is out of kilter with whom you thought you were, like the woman in Smiths story, you have a tremendous opportunity to selfcorrect by changing the way you think and act. Once you have ascertained your true values, you are ready to identify an appropriate option for managing your difficult boss. These options will be examined in Part II.


1. Peter Adebi, Pruning Thorns from Roses: HR’s Role in Managing Disruptive Key Employees (Society for Human Resources White Paper, February 2008),

2. Mental Health America, (accessed May 24, 2008).

3. SkillSoft, Inc.,, May 11, 2006
(accessed June 2, 2008).

4. Mental Health America, (accessed June 17, 2008).

5. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules (Simon and Schuster,

6. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules (Simon and Schuster,

7. Harvard Medical School and Mclean Hospital Study, (accessed June 5, 2008).

8. American Institute of Stress,
(accessed June 17, 2008).

9. Human Resource Executive Magazine, By the Numbers. Compiled by John Kador. May 16, 2008.

10. Walk with the King tape series, tape #2040,

11. Hyrum Smith, The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management (Warner
Business Books, 1995).

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