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How To Deal With Difficult Bosses by Taking Radical Responsibility

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I’ve had my share of difficult bosses. The kind of boss that makes everyone feel like they are walking on eggshells. That is liable to fly off the handle at any moment. That has constructed a complex series of systems that cost the organization time, money, efficiency, and morale — all because it helps that boss maintain a perception of control or it suits their fancy. Most often, a difficult boss has notoriously low self-awareness and giving them feedback is out of the question, though they would tell you otherwise.

The amount of hours I have spent analyzing the personalities of difficult bosses, talking about their habits, and complaining about their demanding and demoralizing behavior over countless lunches to co-workers is somewhat embarrassing. It is so easy to get into a cycle of blaming bad bosses for their seemingly poor choices as CEOs and executive directors, for the way their presence diminishes your quality of life, and for their seeming lack of interest in mitigating their negative impact on staff.

Why Are Difficult Bosses Not Your Problem?

While these difficult bosses represent a dying breed — once omnipresent in corporations, non-profits, and the public sector — they are not actually our problem. Our problem is our mindset and our refusal, as we practice in Co-Active coaching, to take 100% responsibility for the world we are creating.

To take 100% responsibility for this problem means we are ultimately the ones creating our world and our experience at any given moment. The authors of 15 Commitments Towards Conscious Leadership explain this process with breathtaking clarity: “The first step in taking responsibility is to shift from believing that the world should be a particular way to believing that the world just shows up. Second, we need to shift from rigidity, close-mindedness, and self-righteousness to curiosity, learning, and wonder (which naturally occurs once our beliefs change) ... Drama in leadership and life is caused by the need to be right. Letting go of that need is a radical shift that all great leaders make.”

My coaching client Emily (not her real name) and I have been talking about her difficult boss for nine months. Every coaching session, she brings up another scenario in which this ego-driven, oblivious, hard-driving chief marketing officer asks her for unreasonable deadlines, piles more on her plate, and ignores long-term and mutually agreed-upon goals.

But Emily’s problem is not her boss’s. It’s that she refuses to push back. After a successful career working in agencies, Emily jumped into startup life — working longer and longer hours and embracing the chaotic, all-hands-on-deck, scrappy new working environment. While Emily’s natural style is collaborative and hard-working, she quickly realized that her desire to be liked and be seen as contributing value was leading her on the path to early burnout. Moreover, her fear of confrontation was causing her to put all the blame on her boss, who — oblivious to Emily’s gentle nudges — continued to steamroll over boundaries and ignore her requests for more clarity. It was time for Emily to try a different tactic to get through.

How to Deal With a Difficult Boss: 5 Steps to Radical Responsibility

The good news? If you are like Emily and have difficult bosses in your life, here are a few steps you can take today to shift towards more radical responsibility and change the dynamic:

1) Change your mind, change your boss.

A creative, calm, non-judgmental mind will allow you to be infinitely more effective and responsive to any situation that arises at work. To do this, you need to drop the judgment you have about whatever situation is arising, as well as your judgment of your boss. Instead, work on cultivating compassion and practicing patience, curiosity, and forgiveness: If this situation is an opportunity for growth, what can be learned here?

2) Recognize where you might be a toxic boss yourself.

As Liz Wiseman identified in her excellent book Multipliers, many managers are “simply unaware of how management practices they thought to be empowering were actually limiting or restricting employees from using the intelligence they had. Their intent was quite different than their impact.” According to Wiseman, we all have diminisher tendencies but can shift consciously into practices that will help us multiply the strengths, effectiveness, and impact of our teams with awareness.

3) Flex into a new side of your range.

Use your boss as an opportunity to practice a communication style that is outside of your comfort zone. Perhaps the interaction with your boss is asking you to be really brave, bold, assertive, directive, strategic, or deferential. Whatever the stretch, see it as an opportunity to improve your ability to flex into whatever style will serve (a coach can be very helpful here). No doubt you will need familiarity with this new trick down the line in your career.

4) Take small actions for big impact.

Often when confronted by difficult bosses, we feel trapped with a sense of hopelessness, thinking “this will never change.” Start running small experiments every week — opening up lines of communication, asserting new boundaries, letting go of areas of control — and collecting data around what works. Notice if your week-over-week experience shifts with these tiny changes.

5) Drop the complaining.

It can be so tempting to gather a crew of like-minded co-workers (or a trusted spouse or friend) who will invariably take our side to commiserate and vilify our boss. Complaining perpetuates a vicious cycle that reinforces the drama triangle of villain-victim-hero and feeds on blame, thus preventing you from taking full responsibility for your circumstances and effecting meaningful change.

Dealing with Difficult Bosses by Taking Back Responsibility

Taking full responsibility does not mean you are a doormat: There might be times when you need to remove yourself from the situation. But if we take full responsibility for our attitudes by dropping judgment and cultivating curiosity first, we can be more powerful, more impactful, and more creative in our action-oriented response. Call out bad behavior, step away from drama (internal and external), and ultimately you will create a healthy, productive environment that nurtures the best in yourself professionally.

How about you — how do you usually deal with difficult bosses? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!
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Written By

Gia Storms

Gia Storms specializes in developing leaders, transforming teams and bringing meaning and purpose to the workplace. As executive coach, she brings energy, courage and  ferocity developed after 15 years working in politics and business. Prior to becoming a coach, Gia was the Chief Communications Officer at the Hammer Museum at UCLA and VP of Communications at the Times Square Alliance in New York. Today, she facilitates trainings across the U.S., teaches coaching for  the Co-Active Training Institute, works within major corporations like Microsoft and Google and writes a regularly on leadership. Originally from Seattle, Gia is a graduate of the University of Santa Monica’s Spiritual Psychology Program and Barnard College and lives in Los Angeles.

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