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Bad Boss? Are You Sure It's Not You?

Here's the top 10 challenging people. Now look in the mirror.

Just about everyone I’ve encountered recently — or so it seems — has an ax or two to grind with their boss. From “she just doesn’t understand me” to “he’s only in it for himself” to “he micromanages me,” the complaints sound like the story lines of bad (redundant?) relationship-gone-wrong episodes of the Dr. Phil Show.

I ran into an individual celebrating leaving an alleged miserable manager in the lurch by quitting. Another was busy scheming of ways to undercut her manager by sinking one of the manager’s pet projects. (Harsh and stupid.) And, the coldest cut came from someone genuinely positive that his manager was out on sick leave. I asked whether it was serious, and the guy laughed and said, “It’s not my problem.” (Harsh and cruel.)

I’ve experienced my own fair share of individuals in leadership roles who would have struggled to organize a pumpkin judging contest for 8-year-olds. And there are more than a few I’ve encountered, where it has crossed my mind that karma will be a b@tch. However, newsflash: It’s not always the manager that’s the issue.

If you’re struggling with a challenging boss, a bit of mirror-gazing might just be the ticket. While never excusing or defending bosses who violate ethics, values, and common courtesy, there are a good number who work hard at this most difficult of all tasks of being responsible for the work of others, and still end up on the short end of your judgment. However, I can assure you from long experience, that a good number of you are no day at the beach to work with. (And yes, I resemble that remark. I made life challenging for a number of my well-intended managers. Too brash, too zealous, too aggressive — guilty on all counts.)

Take a look at the list, and if the mirror isn’t clouded by a bit too much ego, perhaps you might just catch a glimpse of yourself.

The Boss’s Top 10 Challenging People

1. The One Who Doesn’t Think for Himself. Your favorite question is, “How would you like me to handle this?” Your favorite complaint is, She’s a micromanager.” Hmmm.

2. The Soap Opera Star. Yes, it’s unfortunate that you crashed your 23-year-old car while driving your child to his court-mandated counseling the same morning you accidentally fed your dog cat food and the cat ate the bird in protest. You could sell tickets to your weekly stories, and while I empathized 52 tragedies ago, you’re wearing thin. I’m not sorry that I’m holding you accountable to the same standards for timeliness and productivity as your colleagues.

3. The “Us Versus Them” Revolutionary. It’s great that you take your role in building our culture seriously, however, if you would start working and spend a little less time raising a militia to confront the evils of management, perhaps things would go better for you.

4. The Office Politician. You’re networking skills are excellent. In fact, it seems like you are perpetually running for an office that doesn’t exist. Now, about your project, your deadlines, your team’s performance . . .

5. The Outraged One. Yes, I know you find it preposterous and outrageous and reprehensible that anyone might dare to offer you specific, behavioral, constructive feedback. If I’m a jerk for doing this important part of my job, so be it. Here’s some heartfelt advice: Get Over Yourself.

6. The Harmonizer. I love your idealistic view to what the workplace should look like. In your mind, there’s a lot of hand-holding and harmony and peace and orderliness. In reality, we’re running flat out for survival, and the process is just a bit messy. Work with me and I’ll work with you.

7. The One with the Chip on the Shoulder. Seriously, not everything is an insult to your intelligence. Your propensity to start an argument for dominance with anyone who you think even looks at you funny is annoying. Much like the advice to the Outraged One: Get Over Yourself.

8. The Knowledge Hoarder. OK, we know you’re smart. Your willingness to only dole out nuggets of wisdom on the second Tuesday of the month is just annoying. And, it’s definitely not a strategy for long-term growth and development. Maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are.

9. The Conspiracy Theorist. There are no aliens or alien craft on the third floor; that executive meeting wasn’t about you, and the look that you think you got from your boss’s boss wasn’t the, “Remind me to fire him” look. You see conspiracies where there are none and you play games where no one else sees the playing field. It’s obvious and funny and sad at the same time.

10. The “What’s My Career Path” One. OK, good managers love people who want to develop and grow. It’s the people who want the promotion before they develop and grow that we struggle with. Newsflash: your progress down any path requires hard work, great results and signs that you can take on increasing levels of responsibility and deliver. While I can explain possible paths and strive to understand your interests and skills, and I can give you new challenges, I cannot predict your future. You make your future one step at a time.

There’s no doubt your manager owns the majority of the heavy lifting for building an effective working environment and for building effective working relationships. However, you are a stakeholder in this situation with a significant investment — your time and energy and your future prospects. The relationship is a two-way street. If things aren’t going well with the boss in your mind, perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror at your own behaviors and make a few adjustments.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Management Excellence blog.

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