Managing a Difficult Boss

You’re hired by a firm that produces great work for an impressive client list, and the company happens to be only blocks away from your house. Best of all, the pay is good, and so are the benefits. You couldn’t be happier—except for your boss, who single-handedly negates every positive aspect of your position. What should be a dream job is turning into a bit of a nightmare.

No one wants to give up a terrific position because of a bad boss, especially when there’s fierce competition for work. Yet not getting along with the person you report to takes a toll on your self-esteem and, ultimately, damages your career prospects.

What’s the best course of action? Assuming your supervisor isn’t equivalent to Jabba the Hutt—and you don’t feel threatened, demoralized or abused—it makes sense to try to improve the relationship before making a break. Here are some common managerial types and ways of enhancing your communication with each one.

•The Box of Chocolates. Like dipping into a box of assorted bon-bons, you never know what you’re going to get with this manager. One day, he comes into your office and chats like you’re best friends; the next, he barely acknowledges you in the hallway. A project that inspires praise one week elicits derision the next. The result? When you’re around this person, you feel as though you’re walking on eggshells, never knowing what will set him off.

Your action plan: The mantra, "don’t take things personally" is a good one to use in this case. If your performance has been consistent, your boss’s fluctuating disposition has nothing to do with you. Make a conscious decision not to get on that same moody roller coaster as your supervisor and you’ll be much happier.

Also, try to remain composed at all times when interacting with this manager; you’ll be the steady presence this person most likely needs. When he’s on edge, communicate via email to avoid being subjected to mood swings. When his spirits seem high, use the opportunity to discuss a project that requires guidance or request vacation time. While you’ll never control your boss’s mercurial temperment, changing how you respond to him will improve your interactions and your own peace of mind.

•The Micromanager. This boss isn’t comfortable unless she knows every detail and is involved in each decision. If you change a font size by a point and don’t consult her, watch out!

On the bright side, this sort of supervisor is probably quite competent and highly responsible. She most likely can’t help her need to control. Her fear is that she’ll fail if she doesn’t catch your mistakes.

Your action plan: Your best approach with this manager is to keep her up to date on all of your work by providing regular and thorough project reports. The more she knows, the greater her comfort level.

Another way to build trust with her is to break one of your projects into individual steps. Choose one or two tasks you’d like to handle on your own and let your boss know, as tactfully as possible. Then deliver those steps exactly as you said you would—if you do, you’ll build trust and she’s likely to give you more responsibility on future assignments. If you don’t deliver on your promises, you’ll be back at square one.

•The "Miracle Worker" Boss. This manager assigns tasks that only a superhero could actually complete—and expresses disappointment when things don’t come through. For example, you may be given a project with an impossible deadline or asked to develop a piece on an unrealistic budget. You’re constantly working weekends and overtime trying to deliver the goods, but even your best efforts don’t suffice.

Your action plan: In the current economic climate, everyone’s expected to go the extra mile, so first do a reality check and make sure you’re putting in your best performance. If you’re giving 100% and still not living up to your manager’s expectations, it’s time to make some changes. Typically, this type of manager is highly creative and a strong leader, but weak when it comes to logistics. You can improve your relationship by being the "detail person," creating specific timelines and budget sheets that will help your boss understand the resources needed for each project. Be careful not to sound like you’re putting up roadblocks; this type of manager is easily put off by anyone who appears to be an obstructionist. Instead, voice your concerns in a positive way (e.g., If we can add one week to the deliverables, that will give us much needed breathing room.")

There are many ways to manage your manager, but only you know if your efforts are working. It could come down to your own personality and tolerance. If you dread going to work each day and find little enjoyment in the other aspects of your job—your coworkers, the work itself, the company’s product—it’s time to look for something new.

On the other hand, you may find that with understanding and some adjustments in your own behavior, you can improve your relationship with your boss while fine-tuning your interpersonal skills along the way.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.