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Federal Coach: Horrible bosses, and how to deal with them

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

A new movie titled Horrible Bosses is coming to theaters next month - a comedy about a trio of employees who devise a hair-brained scheme to rid themselves of their "slave-driving psycho bosses."

While the movie exaggerates reality, there are employees who each and every day endure bosses who make the work environment difficult and, in some cases, downright miserable.

I recently received an email from a federal employee complaining about his manager.

"My problem is a manager that is constantly trying to run me into the ground. It is hard to prove harassment, but this supervisor is definitely doing things that interfere with my career," said the disgruntled federal employee.

Everyone encounters bad days at work and occasional unhappiness with their managers, but it makes no sense to let a perpetually difficult situation fester. Rather than sweeping your feelings and concerns under the rug, you need to approach your supervisor and work to build a more productive relationship.

Confronting your boss may cause some trepidation and fear about putting your job in jeopardy, but in the long run, it will be better to lay your cards on the table and try to resolve the troubling relationship. Every relationship is a two-way street, and the fact is that unless supervisors receive some feedback, they won't realize the effect they are having on you or your colleagues.

Here are a few tactics I've seen others use in building a more productive relationship with a difficult supervisor.

  • Remember what your mother said about assumptions. Before you initiate this conversation with your boss, consider his perspective in the supervisor-employee relationship. Don't assume you know what your boss is thinking. The next time your supervisor does something puzzling, try approaching him separately to see whether he can provide some additional explanation. That insight may help you immediately, and it could help you understand his approach to decision-making more generally.
  • Understand what makes them tick. Supervisors are people too. They have a lot of competing pressures between employee expectations and their senior leaders' demands. As a result, it's important to understand your manager's priorities, preferences and work styles. Does he prefer to read an email before making a decision? Does he need to "white board" options and possible solutions? With this knowledge, you can alter your behavior to make your supervisor's job easier and have more influence with him as well.
  • You need to make the first move. Once you've considered your supervisor's perspective, schedule time for an honest, direct and positive conversation. Let your manager know that you sometimes find work frustrating, and you would like to better meet and exceed his expectations. By staying calm and professional while also avoiding blaming your boss, you'll discover new ways of working together.
  • Be prepared to leave if necessary. A bad relationship with a boss will not change overnight. However, if nothing changes after several good faith efforts to improve, you may need to move on to another office or agency. Look for a team with the right leadership, environment and opportunities to succeed. And make sure to do your homework by asking around before jumping ship.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jun 07, 2011 at 12:12 PM

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