5 Ways to Deal (in Person) with a Bad Boss

Handling difficult managers remotely is a challenge. In-person can be even tougher. 

Remote employees have plenty of reasons to be reluctant to go back to the office full-time. But for many, the worst part of returning to the workplace might be having to deal, in person, with a bad boss. 

Sure, bosses don’t need to be physically present to be bad. Online, there are plenty of ways to micromanage,  plenty of ways to be unfair, obstinate, insulting, and dismissive. Indeed, about 20% of employees say their relationship with their manager has worsened since the start of the pandemic. But employees who have worked remotely over the last two years have at least had the solace of not having to see their professional nemesis face-to-face. 

Having to deal again with an incompetent boss might just catalyze a worker to join the millions who have already quit during the Great Resignation. Even before the big quitting surge started last year, about 60% of workers said they had left a job because of a bad boss. But before you decide that your boss is too much, there are ways to manage and even improve the situation, especially if you are back in the same workplace. Consider these five techniques.

Get a fresh perspective.

While you might believe your boss is handling situations poorly—yelling at you in front of the client, changing direction on a project without telling you, or belittling you in front of colleagues—you might want to get a third party’s perspective. “Ask a mentor or coach who is outside the situation for advice,” says David Meintrup, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Describe a typical stressful situation to them, from what your boss said to how you reacted. Ask what you could have done differently and whether the situation is as dire as you think it is.

You could also reality-test your perspective with your peers, says Korn Ferry senior client partner Deb Nunes. For instance, seek out the perspective of a trusted colleague who has been in meetings with you and your boss. Ask the colleague if they are seeing and feeling the same things you are. Once you’ve confirmed that others are noticing the same behavior, you can begin to address the problem.

Consider that your reaction might play a role.

Changing your own reaction or behavior could make the situation less stressful. “Your reactions could be playing off of each other,” Nunes says. For instance, if you and your boss both get upset easily, a small disagreement could quickly escalate into a massive, ugly dispute. Or if your boss is condescending, that might influence you to become defensive or blame others.

You can take precautionary steps to keep future situations from getting so intense. For instance, if you know your boss gets upset when they see the quarterly sales numbers at the last minute, make sure they have the numbers ahead of your meeting to avoid a conflict. “Many managers will demonstrate poor leadership behavior when they are surprised by something,” Nunes says.

Try to reconcile.

During a face-to-face meeting with your boss, acknowledge that there are times when you don’t work together well. Let your boss know what behaviors you’re working on to make things better—for instance, not overreacting or blaming others.

“You can talk about what you’re doing to make the situation better, but it’s very hard to give feedback to someone who is not a direct report when they don’t ask for it,” Nunes says. Identify the triggers, focus on what you’re going to do to rectify the situation, and ask if that action would help, she says. For instance, you could say, “I think it feels a little uncomfortable for you when I don’t have quarterly numbers to you before the last week of the quarter. I’m working on getting them to you a week before the quarter closes. Would that help?”

Consider talking to HR.

If you’re unable to patch things up with your boss, it might be time to talk with the human resources department. Tell your HR manager what has been going on and what you have been doing to try to bring about a reconciliation. Ask for advice on how to work with your boss constructively. “You will need to show HR what you have tried to do to mitigate the situation, because HR will want to try to salvage the relationship,” Meintrup says.

Look for a new job.

You’ve asked others for advice. You’ve been self-reflective. You’ve identified and developed a plan to defuse situations. You’ve even talked with HR. But nothing has changed. At that point, it is probably time to consider looking for a new position. The good news: there are a record 11.5 million job openings in the United States. “If you’ve done as much as you can, and the relationship is still stagnant, it is probably time to leave,” Meintrup says. Working with a toxic boss is not good for your career—or your health. “If you truly have a toxic boss, staying and working with them will bring you down physically and emotionally,” says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Val Olson.