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The Unmanageable Boss

  • Dr. David Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
  • Updated Sep 14, 2010
The Unmanageable Boss

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You are expected to be a good employee, to show up for work on time every morning, to follow orders, to be mannerly and show deference to authority. But, what do you do when you have a boss who won't show the same respect to you?

"She is antagonistic and controlling," Susan said to me during a counseling session. "I don't know what I've done to make her mad, but she's angry and I can't seem to do anything right. I'd rather be anywhere but at work lately."

"Tell me more," I said.

"This was my dream job," Susan continued. "I like all of my co-workers. I like the work I do. I like where I work, but I can't stand my boss."

"You've talked with her to try getting to the bottom of things?" I asked.

"Sure," she said. "But, she gives me curt answers, micromanages my work, points out little things I'm doing wrong, and then excuses me because she's too busy. I know there's something bugging her."

"Are you sure it's all about you?" I asked Susan. "There are people who seem to be toxic," I explained, "who have issues that have nothing to do with us, and yet we receive the fall out from them."

I paused for a moment and then shared a story from my life.

"I remember a man I used to work for," I shared. "Everyone knew he was unhappy. We could put the pieces together that his marriage was troubled, his children had problems, and we doubt that he was even happy in his job. Yet he had risen to the rank of Supervisor over the years, and probably wished he was doing something else. But, at age sixty, what was he going to do? So, he stuck it out until retirement while we suffered."

"How did you cope with his attitude?" Susan asked.

"Not well, I'm afraid," I said. "Back then I didn't know what I know now. Back then I just became angry along with the rest of the employees. We sort of got even with him by gossiping behind his back, disrespecting him in passive-aggressive ways, and even going so far one time to hide some of his things just to make him angry. Immature stuff!"

"We've all done those things at work, too," Susan said. "I don't feel good about doing them, but she makes us so angry. We work hard and expect to be shown respect. If she isn't going to show me respect, I'm not going to show it to her!"

"Yes, Susan," I said. "I really do understand. But, let's step back and consider a healthier response to someone who is unhappy at work, whether it is you, your boss, or co-worker." 

First, remember that we're all just human. While we don't want to enable disrespect from anyone, we also need to understand where people are coming from. We do well to spend some time considering what the world might look like from another's point of view. Often when we do that, truly empathizing with whatever we understand about their life, our frustrations settle down. 

Second, be careful about making assumptions. While it is tempting to blame everything on your boss, (co-worker or friend) nothing is solved by holding grudges or making wild assumptions about what you believe to be true. Making assumptions without knowing all the information, (which is what we usually do) puts us in a dangerous place. We often assume the worst about another's motives while thinking the best about our own. Be gentle in what you assume about others.

Third, be careful about taking things personally. In addition to the dangers of making assumptions, taking your bosses actions personally is likely to add to the distance and distrust between you and your boss. The motto, "It's not all about you," will help you keep things in perspective. Assume instead that your boss has a life much larger than what you see on the job.

Fourth, keep communication lines open. Harboring a grudge, believing the worst and making huge assumptions about your boss will do little to foster a healthy relationship with him/her. Do your part to keep communication lines open. Show  respect, keep your boss informed of your actions, maintaining a clear feedback loop. Initiate healthy communication, sharing your thoughts, feelings and concerns. Show a willingness to work on any problems brought to light by your boss.

Fifth, listen carefully, making changes as appropriate. Pushing your frustrations and assumptions aside will allow you to truly listen to your boss. Show yourself to be an ally rather than an adversary. Help your boss accomplish what they want accomplished. Do your job as you are paid to do it, and in fact go above and beyond the call of duty. While such action may feel like catering to your boss, we are called to be diligent employees regardless of our bosses' actions.

Sixth, evaluate your actions on their own merits, not by how your boss treats you.  We often have a myopic perspective on our work. We forget we need only measure our work on its own merits, not on what others think of us. Therefore, keep your focus. Remind yourself you are called to do your best, not to please everyone. If you do your best, others will take notice and you will gain the positive reputation you desire.

Additionally, remember your spiritual perspective of work. The Apostle Paul says, "Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free." (Ephesians 6: 5-9)

Finally, involve your Human Resources Department when necessary. There comes a time when you need to have all your bases covered. You need a witness to what is occurring in the workplace, and your boss must be held accountable as much as you. Bringing an objective, neutral third party in to monitor events can cool things down. Know when to reach out for help.

Work is often a place where we feel many pressures. Let me know how these strategies work with your boss and co-workers. Please send your responses to and visit my website at

September 14, 2010

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.