Problem Bosses: How to recognize them and cope

By Sylvia Hepler

If you have a problem boss, you’re in the position of having to navigate a challenging, perhaps tricky situation.  Either you finesse it, get fired, or leave.  It’s that simple, isn’t it?  Take a closer look at this topic by exploring some commonly asked questions and my candid responses to them.

Bosses are people before they become supervisors. Thus, they bring all of their humanity into the role.   Bosses fall into four categories:  those who inspire, those who try, those who coast, and those who harm.  Problem bosses usually fall into one or more of the last three.  Consider your current boss.  Where does she fit?  Why do you reach that conclusion?  What is happening or not happening?  How does this person make you feel?

If you have a problem boss, you’re in the position of having to navigate a challenging, perhaps tricky situation.  Either you finesse it, get fired, or leave.  It’s that simple, isn’t it?  Take a closer look at this topic by exploring some commonly asked questions and my candid responses to them.

What is the biggest cause of “problem bosses” today?

Most bosses have good intentions, but obstacles get in the way.  Overwhelmed by company expectations and demands coupled with personal responsibilities, they are stressed sometimes to the breaking point.  The stress comes from being pulled in a thousand directions at once and not always knowing how to prioritize a massive “to do” list.  Ongoing intense stress can lead to depression, anger, irrationality, and fatigue—all of which take a toll on employees.

What are the signs you are working for a problem boss?

It may or may not be obvious that you have a problem boss.  Pay attention to indicators like excessive need to control people and situations, forgetfulness, verbal abuse, inaccessibility, lack of necessary skills or resourcefulness, difficult personality, dishonesty, and breaches of trust.  Does your boss fail to communicate with clarity, sincerity, and empathy?  Does he act and talk in ways that demotivate staff?  Is she hypercritical?  Does he constantly make excuses for why things don’t get done or why he behaved badly?  Does she have an inflated ego?  Do you see evidence of mental health issues?  Even one of these signs points to a problem boss.

How can you cope with a problem boss?

Frequently, how you deal with a problem boss depends upon the nature of the problem.  Generally speaking, however, you can try a variety of strategies.  Showing genuine respect and support for your boss and her professional position is the queen of these strategies.  It is possible to support someone without actually liking her.  Identify your boss’s strengths and talents (everybody has some), and talk freely about them to others.  Avoid undermining.  Make an effort to understand your boss’s problem behavior or inadequacies.  Understanding is not endorsement.  Figure out what you can learn from this person despite his shortcomings.  Use that knowledge both now and in the future to develop your own career.  Notice the difference between your personality style and that of your boss, then take time to find out how to work more effectively with his particular style for the good of the organization.  An underutilized strategy:  initiate a reasonable conversation with him about what’s bothering you.

Can problem bosses change for the better?

Yes.  It is possible for problem bosses to change.  But don’t count on it.   What you can do is model the behavior you want to see and hope that it will make a difference.  In other words, lead by example.  Attempt to positively influence her by communicating in the ways you need her to communicate.   Admit your mistakes.  Volunteer to help solve a problem instead of complaining about it.  Demonstrate a bit of healthy humility.  Manage your strong emotions.  Solicit input from others about how to approach a project.  Tell the truth using diplomacy.  Highlight the lemonade amidst the pile of lemons.  Apologize for losing your patience.  Take a few deep breaths when stressed.

Are you contributing to your boss’s problem behaviors?

If you minimize them, condone them, laugh or joke about them, or adopt those same unattractive behaviors, you very well may be contributing to your boss’s problem.  Get honest with yourself about this.  Are you doing any of those things?  If so, you need to stop.  Otherwise, you risk fueling the pipeline of behavior you regard as unacceptable.  While you, personally, are not responsible for your boss’s characteristics, traits, style, words, or acts, you do need to examine yourself to make sure you aren’t  playing a role—directly or indirectly—in facilitating the negative.

What price do you pay for working with a problem boss?    

The answer depends upon the severity of the issue(s).  If your boss is abusive, you pay with your physical and emotional health.  Slowly but surely, you also sacrifice your self esteem and confidence.  While this is the extreme “problem boss”, know that abuse from bosses is not an anomaly.  It’s just that many folks don’t recognize the different forms of verbal abuse when they hear them.  Whatever the issue with your problem boss, it’s likely you are living in a continuous state of frustration, anger, aggravation, exasperation, or disgust.  As a result, you may endure sleepless nights, feel generalized fearScience Articles, and lose zest for life.  Only YOU can decide if you should stay the course or cut the cord.  There are valid reasons for either choice.



Sylvia Hepler, Owner and President of Launching Lives, LLC, is an executive coach based in South Central PA.  Her ideal clients are persons in management positions:  corporate, nonprofit, and business owners.  Her company mission is to support executives as they solve problems, develop leadership skills, and increase balance in their lives.  Sylvia offers three programs, any of which may overlap depending on client need:  First Class Management Program; Change, Loss, and Grief Program; and Career Development Program.  Her professional background includes:  extensive nonprofit management/leadership, public speaking, business writing, retail sales, and teaching.