Seven tips for dealing with an impossible boss

Posted on August 5, 2011



Image by Floyd Brown via Flickr

I usually speak from the leadership perspective. But I must admit, in almost two decades of professional life, I´ve run into some very impossible people who became my bosses. Being a leader is not easy and many bosses don´t know how to be one. Instead, they metamorphic into what I call the “little Napoleons of the corporate world”.

Without a doubt, grief and stress overwhelm many people who are under pressure to perform with a boss they can never please. It can wreck homes if you ask me. And you have only 3 options: Stay and deal with it, ask for a transfer, or quit.

Some years ago, I worked at a global corporation, in the élite group of admins that supported the top multimillion dollar accounts. One of my clients, the VP for Latin America, was an absolutely impossible woman who´d risen the corporate ladder thanks to her many connections, including a VIP boyfriend in the same company. She was extremely rude. A very condescending woman that yelled at me all the time and expected performance above my knowledge and duties.

She always answered something like “I didn´t say that” or “that´s not what I meant”, because the truth is she really had no idea of what she wanted at times, or the knowledge to make it happen. And she always wanted things by yesterday. I wasted so much time trying to please her, working overtime, taking courses to master skills so I could exceed her expectations. She never appreciated my work and spoke ill about me when she got a new pair of ears to take the rap.

I´ve always been a crocodile-skin woman, or waterproof if you may. But this woman brought out feelings I never knew I had. My happiest dreams involved knives and this woman. Whenever the phone rang, I would cringe to see her name pop-up on the ID screen. The sound and tone of her voice stressed me out so much my windpipe would close. Then I stopped in my tracks. I realized things don´t have to be this complicated, that I needed to be smarter. I had to do a reality check, be honest with myself. Acknowledge when it was my mistake and when it was not.

And this is what I learned:

  1. Never let them fight you without proof or reasonable explanation. Many times they don´t like something simply because you do. On occasions you´ll find there´s no logic or sense in what they are saying and when you ask them for proof to back up their claims, you simply confuse them. They can´t recall.
  2. When you are not able to do something, please say no. Many times we take on a project or assignment that´s over our heads or we know we can´t complete by deadline. We do it because we want to please this impossible person. Just say no.
  3. When they rant or take undue credit at a meeting, just let them. Sometimes they simply need to shine in front of their bosses or a group of peers, even if what they are saying is not exact science or happened in some other way. Time is your best friend.
  4. Many complicated bosses are not organized. If you are a meticulous person, keep a record of emails and conversations so they can´t come back and say “I never said that”. Once I had a boss that answered this to me and I pulled out a piece of paper with his instructions written on them. He simply smiled and said “that´s not my handwriting”.
  5. When they feel cornered, they yell and change the subject. This is a common defense tactic. Please don´t let anyone raise their voice at you or allow them to change topics. Keep your cool under these unnerving circumstances.
  6. When you meet 1:1 to measure your performance, make sure you have all your work documented. Surprise them with a task sheet tracking your work day by day. They´ll see what you are doing  and perhaps will stop saying your job is easy or that you don´t really do much.
  7. If they make the wrong choices, let them. They will no doubt look for someone to blame if things go south, but they are responsible for the results, not you.

I finally gave in to this impossible situation and I turned in my resignation. That same minute I felt an indescribable relief and I knew it was the right thing to do. I realized I am loyal to my principles and only work with people who share my values, my great responsibility and accountability for my work and professionalism. There is no better job than the one you do with love and dedication, for a boss or company that appreciates it. Don´t settle for anything less.

Posted in: Communications