Work Relationships

Managing a demanding manager: a workplace survival guide

Written by Kate Lopaze

When you’re applying and interviewing for a new job, everyone’s on their best behavior. You’re (professionally) dressed to kill and making eye contact like a boss while you talk about your many qualifications. The hiring manager is basically an ambassador, working on selling the organization to you. And even though you might have a sense of the day-to-day of the position and the general company culture, you can’t really prepare for the realities of a difficult boss.

Like any interpersonal relationship, there may be a honeymoon period before your boss’s Type A side emerges. (Or … it may happen on day two.) Whatever the case may be, dealing with a demanding boss can add stress and subtract from your job satisfaction. Let’s review some strategies for dealing with a difficult manager.

Set realistic expectations

This has to be the baseline communication between you and your manager. Things can easily spiral out of control if you’re not meeting expectations, while also not working with your manager to create a manageable workload. Instead of letting a demanding boss pile priorities on your desk, make it an ongoing conversation. “I can handle this, but this other thing may need to wait until next week—is that okay?” Keeping an open dialogue about expectations can help keep the necessary communication channels open.

Be open about your needs

If you feel overwhelmed because your boss is demanding high-level performance on an unreasonable number of tasks or projects, make sure you’re clear about what you need to succeed. For example: “I’m going to need the intern’s help to handle this part of the project, if we want to stay on schedule.” Or “I’ll need information from this other team, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to provide that before next month.” If you don’t have the right tools, you won’t be able to deliver what your boss wants or expects, and that will reflect badly on you. So speak up!

Don’t be combative

If you feel cornered and overwhelmed by a boss with a strong personality, it can be tempting to let that misery and frustration out in your conversations. It’s important that your boss knows you’re willing to work with them to achieve what needs to be done. Don’t be a doormat, but do be polite. If your relationship turns into conflict after conflict, productivity is going to go down—and your career might suffer for it.

Anticipate your boss’s next move

If you’re dealing with a micromanager, working on your psychic skills may help save your professional sanity. If your boss is constantly asking for reassurance that something is done, send proactive emails letting her know that X is done—before she has to ask. After a while, you should be able to anticipate the kinds of questions your boss will ask and what responses they want. Once you know that pattern, it’s easier for you to give your boss what she wants. If she has the reassurance that things are happening just as she wants them to, it can get you some much needed peace.

Set clear boundaries

If you’re always reading (and responding) to emails late at night, your boss may start to take that for granted and expect you to be on call all the time. Some managers are better about respecting personal boundaries and work-life balance than others. Maybe your boss is a workaholic who answers work emails while brushing his teeth in the morning, but if you want a healthier line between Work You and Not-at-Work You, it’s important to say so—and be firm about it. His work style may not be yours, and that’s okay. Don’t answer non-emergency emails during off hours, and if necessary, let your boss know that you’ll be off the grid during certain times.

Check-ins with your boss can help manage these boundaries: “Just a reminder that I’m going to be out tomorrow, but I’ll handle this first thing Monday,” or “I’m planning to have this part of the project wrapped up before I leave tonight, but this other piece may trail until tomorrow.” Much of the time, your boss just wants to know that things are being handled, so if you’re clear about how you’re handling things and when you plan to do them, that can help.

Cut them some slack

This can be the hardest strategy of all—after all, they’re the problem, right? Yes and no. A demanding boss can make your job much more challenging than it needs to be. But we all have our own styles of doing things, and your boss may not even realize she’s being overbearing. Think about whether she’s genuinely being unreasonable, or if it’s a (perhaps unintentional) tone that makes you think she’s being unreasonable. It’s important to think of your boss as a person with their own needs, goals, and priorities. Is she under pressure from her own boss? Trying to see the situation from a broader perspective (and not just one of the put-upon employee) can help you manage the situation better. 

Having a demanding boss can stress you out and make you think about jumping ship. But before you do something drastic, see if there are small ways you can change how you interact with your boss, making things easier for both of you.

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About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.

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