In an ideal world, we would all have motivating, supportive bosses who make us feel valued and appreciated. Unfortunately, this might not be how situations play out in reality. Whether it’s anger management issues, incompetence, or micromanagement, we must learn to deal with difficult bosses and get work done. 

Bosses can have a significant impact on overall job satisfaction. Difficult bosses can go out of their way to criticise, interfere, and undermine employee morale. Dealing with a difficult boss can be different from dealing with a toxic one, but the differences are not always distinct, and coping strategies overlap for both cases.

Traits of difficult bosses

Red flags can vary from incompetence to micromanagement and include many other toxic characteristics. Difficult bosses invariably demonstrate some or all of the traits listed below: 

Chronic micromanagement

Contrary to popular belief, the tendency to micromanage does not arise from sadism; it rises from the fear of losing control. Most bosses start as superior individual contributors who got noticed and promoted. Most micromanagers hover around their employees to display their own expertise or wait in the hope of identifying mistakes in the task in hand.


Signs of an incompetent boss could include some or any of the following:

  • Inability to make decisions
  • A tendency to make poor and miscalculated decisions
  • Refusal to deviate from set procedures
  • Over-reliance on subordinates to get work done.

They also have an uncanny ability to cling on to their positions despite incompetence. Incompetent bosses are often easily overwhelmed, lack foresight, and refuse to appreciate the contribution of their teams.

Poor listening skills

Listening is one of the most critical business communication skills as it requires us to perceive reality from the other person’s point of view. Bosses who are bad listeners make impulsive decisions, are quick to jump to conclusions without the support of facts, respond thoughtlessly and are often incompetent, as they process incomplete information. Poor listeners also have a habit of interrupting others, proffering premature advice, and monopolising conversations.

Disorganisation and forgetfulness

Dealing with a disorganised and forgetful boss may result in false project starts, misinformation, work overload, missed or incorrect deadlines, stress, and general incompetence. The results can cause a domino effect within the organisation with farreaching ramifications.

Toxicity of office gossip

While you may feel apprehensive dealing with a toxic boss, gossiping behind their backs will not only affect day-to-day interactions but will leave the underlying problem unresolved. Indulging in negative workplace communications (even if your grouse is founded on reality) may lead to unpleasant consequences. The gossip may reach the boss’s ears and result in disciplinary or other action.

It’s a good idea to use proactive, positive tactics while managing a difficult boss.

Strategies for handling a difficult boss

It’s best to choose a strategy that counteracts the specific negative trait(s) demonstrated by your boss; in other words, to adopt a customised solution that directly addresses the problem. Let’s understand how to do this:

Dealing with a micromanaging boss

To begin with, analyse your track record, past performance, attitude and delivery to ensure you have not attracted micromanaging behaviours. If your boss is micromanaging only you (and not other employees), you need to evaluate your work record in an unbiased manner.

  • Anticipate the tasks that your boss wants and get them done well ahead of time. 
  • Provide proactive, detail-oriented updates to stave off nit-picking and questioning.
  • As a last resort, try communicating respectfully to your boss and explain your problem directly to them.

Dealing with an incompetent boss

Firstly, try and identify the weak spots. For example, your boss may be overwhelmed by the idea of creating graphic presentations, so see whether you or a willing colleague can offer assistance in the area.

Communicate your needs specifically and tactfully, and if your boss is incompetent technically, identify alternative sources of guidance. On the flip side, senior staff may communicate directly with you instead of your boss. However, you will need to manage such very carefully. It is suggested that you include your boss in these communications to prevent a perception that you are going behind their back.

Dealing with a boss who doesn’t listen

Minimise verbal interactions and use emails instead so that communications are recorded in case of potential misunderstandings.

Dealing with a disorganised boss 

Making your efforts visible can prevent the fallout from working for a disorganised boss who forgets to give you the recognition you deserve. Email all your communications to confirm what you think they said, as forgetful bosses change their minds frequently.

Customised HR coaching programs can benefit your organisation in many ways. Our trusted psychologists and HR practitioners at ESN prove valuable allies who help leaders and teams work together seamlessly.

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