How do I Deal with a Difficult Manager?

Malcolm Tatum

Dealing with a difficult manager is somewhat more complicated than attempting to work around a difficult co-worker. Since the manager or supervisor can usually make life around the workplace difficult, finding ways to make a difficult situation a little easier requires careful planning. Fortunately, there are ways to work with a difficult manager and eventually bring some harmony to the workplace.

A well-timed discussion with a difficult manager might help diffuse conflict.
A well-timed discussion with a difficult manager might help diffuse conflict.

One of the factors that prevents people from entering into dialogue with a difficult manager is the possibility of losing their jobs. Since there are managers who do not take it well when anyone questions their methods or deportment, the loss of a job is certainly something to consider. Before actually approaching your manager about his or her attitude in the office, make sure you have a backup plan in place. Ideally, you have another position lined up elsewhere that can be claimed if the manager does terminate your employment. This is especially important if you live in an at-will jurisdiction, where you can be let go with relative ease.

Keeping calm when you do confront your difficult manager is extremely important. For this reason, don’t attempt to discuss the unprofessional behavior at the moment it happens. Give yourself time to calm down and collect your thoughts. Sorting through the emotions you are experiencing and getting control of how you will discuss the issue at hand makes it much easier to maintain your voice at an even tone, maintain eye contact, and present yourself as being rational and willing to work through what has happened.

While talking with your difficult manager, make it a point to not follow his or her lead in terms of the verbiage you use. Don’t return threats or criticism. Personal attacks launched at you are an attempt to undermine your calm and cause you to lose control. Never stoop to that level. Instead, state your case calmly, provide your manager with the chance to vent, then provide suggestions for changes that would make the workplace more productive for both of you. If the manager begins to see the light, then there is a good chance things will change, slowly but surely.

As part of the discussion with your difficult manager, do not hesitate to mention the good things that he or she does around the workplace. This serves two purposes. First, it reminds you that there is another side to the manager, and that is the side you want to see more often. Second, mentioning those positive actions sends a clear message that you don’t consider your manager to be completely inept, and do notice the good as well as the not so good.

If attempts to work out the issues with your difficult manager fall on deaf ears, then the time has come to seek support elsewhere. Document the events that have caused the friction in the workplace, then schedule an appointment with the human resources manager. Make sure you provide information about your attempts to work with the manager, and ask the human resources manager to intervene, possibly by having a meeting with both of you. If other employees are having the same issues with the difficult manager, asking them to be included would also help bring the problem to resolution.

Keep in mind that even the best of managers will have days where he or she is difficult to work with. Those days sometimes come about because of pressures originating from higher in the company structure, problems at home, or some other difficulty that has temporarily soured the manager’s point of view. Remind yourself that everyone has a bad day now and then, and make allowances for this possibility. When this is the case, overlooking the occasional bad behavior becomes easier, especially when your manager is usually levelheaded and fair.

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Discussion Comments


What happens if the HR Manager is the General Manager (the difficult manager)?


Good advice, except for one item mentioned.

Do not -- I repeat, do not -- go to the Human Resources Department to discuss anything like this. It's a sure way to lose your job. HR Departments are always on the side of management.

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