5 Difficult bosses decoded: turning difficulty into the best for you

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Dealing with a difficult boss can bring a great deal of stress to our work. Let’s say it: it is hard. Many lawyers in managerial positions, indeed, receive limited training and support for developing strong people-management skills. The result can be a manager who is a strong professional but puts few resources into managing, coaching, and developing their team.

Different bosses will offer different opportunities for personal and professional development. This post looks at five types of difficult bosses who are recurrent in the workplace. Decoding their styles offers strategies that may turn dealing with a difficult boss into personal growth.

1. The Micromanager Boss

The micromanager boss is a manager who usually receives (or perceives receiving) a high level of pressure or control from the top and cascades the same to their resources with little-to-no filter. The micromanager boss gets involved in the details and exact timing and can be quite controlling.

The personal growth opportunity in this scenario resides in building the trust that is needed between you and your manager. Progressively, this trust will allow for a healthier level of interaction. Building trust requires time, making room for trial and error and patience – both with ourselves and with our boss. We may start suggesting opportunities for dealing with a certain matter more independently and ensuring that our manager is satisfied with the outcome. Ultimately, trust is a win–win scenario. Anticipating and communicating the next steps (for example, by using a shared document) as well as setting up healthy boundaries will reduce the level of unnecessary, and often frustrating, interactions.

Find out what is most important to your boss and align agendas – ultimately, what is most important to your boss is where their greatest stress level lies.

2. The Disengaged Boss

The disengaged boss is a manager who is generally busy managing up. Managing down and devoting quality time to their team does not seem to rank high on the agenda. Right or wrong, these managers have other priorities. The disengaged boss makes little time for meeting or spending time with team members, so when we get an opportunity to discuss our matters, we need to ensure that we get the best out of it. Getting the best out of it means we prepare thoroughly; for example, we suggest an agenda of topics for discussion and offer a written recap of agreed-upon actions. We send the follow-ups. Each manager has a different communication style – work out the one (email, face-to-face meeting, end-of-the-day chat) that works best with your boss.

Even though there is no real replacement for a manager’s input, this managerial style is an opportunity to build up personal confidence by DIY-ing more and becoming savvier in deciding when to escalate matters to our boss.  It also allows us to look into team resources, for example, by developing stronger relationships with more senior colleagues. If your boss has no time for mentoring, it doesn’t mean your personal growth has to be put on hold.

3. The Prima Donna Boss

The prima donna boss is often an otherwise very capable and competent manager with a tendency to dominate the scene. This manager is rarely keen on promoting different styles; their style tends to prevail – and prevail strongly.  As a consequence, these managers may minimise contributions made by others because their focus is on their contributions and their ideas.

These managers usually have extensive experience and are capable professionals (and they know it). There is a lot to learn from their experience. However, finding a balance that allows us to grow can be challenging, and successful win–wins require time to build. During one-on-one meetings, mirroring your boss’s language can be helpful: ‘I heard you suggesting/concluding/requesting…’. We process things differently when our language is offered back to us because it gives us a chance to see things in perspective. Keeping the focus on their ideas and contribution rather than their delivery style is also helpful – at the end of the day, it is the only thing that matters.

4. The I-No-Longer-Care Boss

Some bosses remain mysteries to many. They seem to lack the leadership skills and vision required to manage a team. Their own motivation may have been put under strain until they reached a stage of ‘professional plateau’ – or progressive decline. As a result, these managers are rarely passionate about their jobs or the people they work with. They tend to do as little as possible and go with as little change as needed to keep things just about OK. The energy in their teams is flatter than in other teams. And chances are… you are not the only one noticing it

These managers generally leave space to others when they are engaged constructively – and with this always comes an opportunity to get involved in different types of work and promote your own development. There may be a matter or a project that is still of great interest to your manager and that could be a great kick-starter to strengthen the work relationship with your boss. Ask more and suggest more to find out. Remaining keen and not allowing their behaviour to become your behaviour will test your motivations and reward you in the long run. And remember, no one will be your boss forever.

5. The Low Skills–High Ego Boss

Differently from the prima donna boss, whose skills are widely recognised by the organisation, the low skills–high ego boss just does not have the same level of skills. Their perception of how good they are is, generally, off sync with the majority perspective.

These me-me-me bosses can be quite selective on their areas of focus – and that always opens up space for stretching ourselves and finding opportunities for professional growth. High ego bosses may require extra care in communication – if perceptions and recollections are recurrently different, clear summaries in writing help to keep everyone on the same page. A high-ego individual, ultimately, has a fragile ego, and picking the right battles (do we really need ego friction to progress a matter?) and staying solid with our values can be testing at times. But that’s where true professionalism is built.

These scenarios explore what I would call recurrent and ‘normal range’ difficult bosses. Win–wins require more work, but they can be achieved. Recognise, however, when the situation is more severe and continues for too long without progress. If dealing with a difficult boss leaves little or no room for you to grow professionally, more realistic options will, of course, need to be considered.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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