How to Improve Your Working Relationship with a Difficult Boss

On Oct. 17, workers around the country will celebrate National Boss’ Day – some, perhaps, with more enthusiasm than others. In light of this upcoming holiday, an expert at Wake Forest University offers tips for how employees can improve their working relationships with difficult bosses.

Evelyn Williams, a professor and associate vice president of leadership development at Wake Forest University, discusses several approaches employees can take when working under difficult bosses:

Stop trying to determine if your boss could be a psychopath – odds are, he or she is not. A recent study suggested that as many as one in 25 corporate leaders may display psychopathic traits. Realistically, Williams said, most employees have supervisors who are simply stressed out, not psychopathic. “If your boss is under enormous stress, they may make decisions due to the circumstances. That doesn’t mean they have a personality disorder,” Williams said. “But they might be making decisions without considering the full impact on employees.”

Your boss is not the enemy. In fact, your relationship is mutually dependent. You need your boss to sign your paycheck, and your boss needs you to perform the work that he is rewarded for, as well. Williams stressed that it benefits both the worker and the boss if the relationship is harmonious. Approach your boss as an ally instead of an enemy. “If you give it your best effort to turn your boss into your ally, you will enjoy your relationship more,” she said.

Determine your boss’ work style. Does your boss like details or big-picture reports? Does she use extroverted thinking patterns and think out loud, or is she an introverted thinker who needs time and introspection to arrive at a decision? Does your employer like to make a final decision and move on, or invite additional comments and feedback to make decisions by committee? “Knowing the answers to these questions can help you develop a road map that will guide your work interactions,” Williams explained.

Be direct and document outcomes. Ask the questions that will help you determine the best communication style to use with your boss. Documenting your conversations can serve as helpful reminders, as well. “After you have a conversation with your boss or arrive at a decision, sending an email stating the decision or action steps from the conversation can help you both stay on track,” Williams said. “It may also be helpful to have that record so you can look back at decisions that were made if any questions arise.”

Remember: Your boss is human, too. “As employees, we want to have positive recognition for the work we do,” Williams said. “Think about how your boss might need positive recognition or reinforcement and offer it. Everyone likes recognition for their work.”

At some point in your career, you may end up working for a difficult boss. Making smart decisions about how you will communicate and being able to develop a good working relationship with the boss will enhance your professional abilities and relieve a stressful situation – and it might make the National Boss’ Day celebrations less painful, as well.

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