Most of us, at some point in our working life, have come across working with a challenging manager or supervisor. If we're lucky enough to have avoided that experience thus far, we will likely meet this workplace foe at some point in the future. This experience can be frustrating for various reasons: personal wellbeing, career advancement and toxic organizational culture, to name a few. Here are some suggestions if you find yourself asking the question, "How do I deal with a supervisor like this?'
Observe, Track and Reflect
Deciding how to respond to a frustrating supervisor mostly depends on the nature of their behavior and the level of rapport that you've built with them. It's important to distinguish if we are dealing with annoying tendencies such as micromanaging, or more insidious actions or behaviors that are just blatantly wrong. Start by observing with curiosity. No human and no supervisor will ever be perfect and we will likely have some conflict from time to time. Unless the supervisor's behavior is egregious (i.e. racism, sexual harassment, etc.), start by giving your supervisor the benefit of the doubt.
If patterns of behavior obviously continue to persist, then start to document the nature of these occurrences and the dates they are occurring. This documentation will help you assess the level of problematic behavior and plan your next steps. If you need to involve Human Resources in the future, documentation is always helpful to support your case. If the supervisor's behavior is something truly awful such as a sexual advance or a discriminatory comment, then more serious action is likely needed to be taken right away. Once it becomes clear that some action is needed, the following steps should be seen as an order of escalation as things get more problematic.
Handling things directly with your supervisor is typically the ideal place to start for most cases. This is a chance to take all that assertive communication education we give our clients and start putting our own "I" statements to good use. A clear conversation with a director lets us express how we have been feeling in light of their actions and is a great chance to make a request for more of what we need from them. Do they need to back off a bit? Do they need to communicate more frequently? Do they need to give more feedback? Whatever the case, a clear conversation, done in a non-attacking manner, can go a long way for clearing the air and improving the supervisor relationship. For some, this can be a scary thing to think about doing, especially since the supervisor holds some amount of power over us. However, some courage, tact and willingness to work on the relationship can really pay dividends in the long run.
If the supervisor has not been responsive to our direct communications, or if the nature of their behavior is more serious, it may be time to get another person involved. Ideally this would be someone we have some familiarity with who is at or above our supervisor's level in the organization structure. Speaking with this 3rd party may provide some helpful wisdom, suggestions for next steps, or, it may enact some more accountability for our supervisor. It can be a bold move to talk to your supervisor's boss, but if you have had some clear conversations with your direct supervisor, and still nothing has changed, this type of conversation can be warranted.
Human Resources usually handle the highest level of problems with supervisors. If other methods have been tried with our supervisor or if the supervisor's behavior was just really terrible, then reaching out to HR is the best next step. A good HR department should be able to offer a listening ear, provide some support and validation, help to file a formal complaint, or mediate if necessary. If the supervisor's behaviors have been highly problematic, HR will provide accountability and disciplinary action to the supervisor. Thankfully that part is not our job.
We all need to vent when we're having problems with our supervisor. We need to express our frustrations and have our grievances heard. However, this is usually best done in moderation and with a limited number of trusted people. A partner, a friend outside of the workplace, or maybe a coworker who can relate and maintain professionalism are often great resources. We must be aware when we are seeking helpful support, versus when we are just tearing down, being vengeful or adding to workplace toxicity. While it may feel good for the moment to continually lash out verbally, it often just leads to further negative emotions. In some cases, our words can spread too far and come back to hurt us professionally. And, don't forget to support yourself with quality self care while going through it all!