Ask the Admin: Dealing With a Difficult Boss

By | Nov 6, 2009

Today we have another question from a reader: how do you handle a difficult boss? Here’s the e-mail I received:

How do you deal with a boss who’s not only moody, but crazy?

I swear she must be bi-polar. She will fly off the handle at the smallest thing – and everything in the world is the biggest tragedy.
She has not perception of personal boundaries. If someone has food out on the desk such as granola, chips or cookies – she will walk right up reach her hand in the bag and help herself. She can curse a blue streak and is computer illiterate. It’s not like she has been here 35 years and is a part of the woodwork – she was hired in July of 2009 I believe because of her “Dynamic” personality to raise the profile of the organization in the area but I believe she will raise awareness for all the wrong reasons.

Any ideas on how to cope?

I apologize in advance for the long post, but there are several separate issue here that I’d like to address.

Defending Personal Boundaries

Let’s take the issue of personal boundaries first.

This is an issue that everyone will deal with at some point in their career, if not with a boss, then at least with a coworker.  Let’s face it, not everyone has the same concept of personal boundaries.  Personally, I have huge personal boundaries, and I mean really huge.  If someone gets within 5 feet of me, I get tense.  Of course, that’s not a boundary I can rightly defend in the office.  Sometimes I just have to share that extended personal space with others.  However, I do draw the line at more close contact.

That’s the situation you have here.  Her definition of personal boundaries is much different than yours.  The only way to deal with such an issue is to address it in a cordial and friendly manner.  Ask to talk with her, sit down and explain that the situation makes you uncomfortable.  Make sure to address it in a manner that is non-threatening and non-blaming.  Your comments should be framed in the form of “I feel x when you do y”.  Always address it as your feelings and not her actions.  Because that’s what it comes down to.  Your feelings.  So essentially you are asking a favor of her to not cross your boundaries.  “I feel very uncomfortable when you just take food off my desk without asking.”  Most likely she’ll apologize and try not to do it any longer.  If she does, just giver her a gentle reminder that you are very uncomfortable with that behavior.

Setting and maintaining boundaries is something we all must do every day in all of our interactions.  Some are easier to set and maintain than others, but it’s something we have to do for our own peace of mind.  Remember though, that in the workplace, you need to choose your battles.  Just like I can’t ask people never to come within 5 feet of me, there are times when your boundaries have to be let down a bit.  However, on this subject, I’m on your side.  She should ask before taking food from someone else.

You can find some excellent books on the subject at such as Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day (this is an affiliate link). I read this particular book some time ago and found it particularly helpful.

Cursing in the Workplace

This is another issue that is akin to personal boundaries.  And, of course, my answer here is going to depend on whether she is just cursing in general without particular anger, or whether she is cursing at you or others and/or raging in anger.  I’ll deal with the former issue here, and address the latter issue further down.

Again, this is a boundary issue.  Cursing has never particularly bothered me in the workplace, mainly because I grew up in the army and heard cursing all of my life.  But that’s just me.  I know other people are very bothered by cursing, which is why I avoid using it in the office.  Again, this is something that should be discussed with your boss just like the above personal boundary issues.  Most people are aware that cursing makes people uncomfortable and are willing to restrict themselves, especially in a professional atmosphere.

Dealing with Abuse

Defending personal boundaries is one thing, but dealing with abuse is something else entirely. No one should have to deal with abuse in the workplace!

Dealing with moodiness is one thing, but if she is yelling, throwing things, or cursing at you, then her behavior needs to be addressed, and not by you.  In any case where there is abuse in the workplace, the best thing you can do is talk to Human Resources.  Before you go, sit down and make a list of things that have happened in chronological order.  Write things out in detail.  What was said by whom, what happened, what actions took place.  Also detail how the words and actions made you feel.  Then make an appointment with your HR representative and discuss the issue with them.  It should be up to them to make a discreet investigation, and then deal with the issues with your boss.

It’s always difficult to deal with an issue that may be due to mental illness.  There’s ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) considerations, among others.  But even if she turns out to have a mental illness, that does not giver her leave be abusive to her staff or anyone else.  You have a right to be protected from such behavior.

I wish you luck in handling this situation.  It’s never easy, even when it’s a coworker, but when it’s a boss who holds your career in their hands, it can be an incredibly frightening situation. Again, there are some excellent books on the subject. This one got great reviews on Amazon: The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (this is an affiliate link).

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