Wharton@Work

May 2018 | 

Dealing with a Bad Boss (and Other Difficult People)

Dealing with a Bad Boss (and Other Difficult People)

You know a relationship is bad when you can’t speak about the person without looking like you’re in pain. Greg Shea, senior fellow at the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, recalls a participant in the Leading and Managing People program: “He literally held his hands to his stomach every time he talked about his boss,” he says. “He wasn’t even aware that he was doing it, but it was a clear physical cue about how difficult the relationship was for him.”

Shea says relationships with most “bad bosses” (or difficult direct reports, or customers, or senior leaders) don’t evoke such an extreme response. But some participants in the program that Shea co-directs are looking for better ways to manage those relationships.

The process begins with a series of diagnostics and frameworks for better reading others and better understanding your own styles of thinking, communicating, and relating. “Our participants are often mid-career leaders who know there is something holding them back, and they’re serious about working on it. During the week we hold up lens after lens after lens,” says Shea. “There are multiple ways of viewing yourself as a leader and the situations that challenge you. At least one of them will give you a clearer view and a path toward a solution.”

What if that challenge is a bad, but not horrible, or even just a “not as good as you’d like” relationship with your boss? “Gaining an understanding of his or her style and interests is key,” says Shea. “When you know how to read someone better, you can approach a conversation in a way that has a better chance of influencing that person. We help participants build a disciplined approach to understanding the world they are in, who influences them, and why. You might be focused on the bottom line, and they might be invested in seeing the innovation they championed make it to market. Personal style and priorities can be very different.”

For participants with genuinely bad relationships with their bosses, the program offers many ways of having conversations in conflict and of “hitting the reset button” on the relationship. But to equip yourself for that conversation, says Shea, seek out potential opportunities both in and out of your organization ahead of time. “Don’t be confined to one possibility — namely, staying in the job or even in your current organization. No matter what techniques you have, if you are worried you are going to lose your position, you won’t be able to be at your maximum level of effectiveness.”

Maximum effectiveness, no matter what kind of situation you’re dealing with, is rooted in being a “passionately disengaged observer” of yourself. Shea says when you can take a step back and watch yourself as an actor in your world, you can see what is working and what isn’t without judgment.

“Without perspective,” he says, “it’s easy to become too focused on or even crippled by the one thing or one relationship that isn’t working. The program helps you ask, what am I actually looking at here? The issue then is not that you are missing the mark in one area — it’s how you are going to fix it.”