The 3 Truths that make managing a nightmare boss easier

Knowing how to manage your manager is no easy task, especially if your manager happens to be a difficult, nightmare boss. But there are three truths which, if taken on-board and applied, can fundamentally change your relationship with your boss. In fact, these truths can be applied to all relationships. 

Truth 1: Feedback often tells you more about the person giving it — than it does about you

Insecure people — people with low esteem — want others to be like them, and if you’ve a nightmare boss, you can be sure he/she has low self esteem (it will invariably show up as bullying, controlling, hyper-critical behaviour). Being surrounded by clones allows a nightmare boss to validate their own opinions and worldview, and to feel safe. 

Since nightmare bosses are highly insecure and have low self worth, they’re threatened by differences — different opinions, attitudes, beliefs — even people that dress differently to them. Differences bring into question or challenge who they are, and they certainly don’t like being challenged by someone junior to them.

So when you’re different, when you do offer different ways of seeing the world and being in the world, you’re challenging them, and if they’ve the power and opportunity to try to make you more like them, they will. 

Take the case of one of, Joe, my clients. Joe was an outgoing, highly competent, humorous, and talented manager working in a global FMCG retailer. His line manager, Janet, was quite the opposite: serious, conservative and dour. And Janet was getting results — she was driving through projects and winning plaudits of top management — so she knew what worked for her; she had a formula.  Only, to implement this formula, Janet demanded exacting behaviours from her team members. These behaviours held no room for creativity (one of Joe strengths), and humour and idle conversation were frowned on. In his annual appraisal, despite Joe hitting all his targets, Janet wrote: “Joe needs to take tasks more seriously…he would do well to rein his tendency for idle talk and to let his ideas pull him away from the team’s primary goals.” 

This formal, written feedback, which was layered on top of more unpleasant verbal feedback, made Joe question his strengths and personality. So I worked with him on understanding what was beneath the feedback — what his manager’s ulterior motivates were: namely her need to surround herself by clones and yes-men. The key learning for Joe was not to take his manager’s feedback and behaviour at face value, but to devise a way to better manage his boss.  

Once you realise that feedback tells you as much about the person giving the feedback than it does about you, then you can start to interact differently. When you get feedback, and you know that it’s not about you, you can work on tactics for managing perceptions (rather than wasting time questioning personal values). In this instance, Joe decided that he could cope from putting on a Janet-esque, me-too persona in Janet’s presence, and that he would rein in his joke telling and stop putting forward ideas to improve processes.

By consciously choosing to play a persona — to be the person your manager wants you to be — then you are making the decision and you are in control. But don’t think this is compromising your values. The subject of authentic leadership is very topical in business at the moment — this notion that we should be honest and open with our emotions at all times. That’s all well and good when you’re dealing with a boss who’s focused on outcomes and allows their team to play to their strengths. But when you’re faced with a dilemma such as a nightmare boss, then being ‘authentic’ and saying how it is not alway a wise option. Being yourself or standing up to such a boss is not going to change them. Indeed, we play personas all the time in all arenas of our life, and that temporarily changing your work persona until a particular boss has moved on can sometimes be the best option.  

You may think that playing out who your boss wants you to be is going to be stressful and it will cause you, what psychologists call, emotional labour. But know that by choosing to play the role required you will save yourself energy from resisting your boss, and that beneath, your instrinic values remain intact. 

Projections & Remainers 

Janet’s feedback to Joe was a conscious effort to change Joe into a clone like her. But there are times when criticism (and criticism is a form of feedback — albeit an unconstructive one) of others is a projection, which allows you to see inside your manager’s mind.

What is a projection? A projection is an unconscious weakness that our ego denies we have, and which we then thrown on to others. In therapy they say “if you can spot it, you’ve got”. 

A topical example are the radical Remainers in the Brexit campaign accusing those who voted to leave, the Brexiteers, of being bigots. And what is the definition of a bigot… “A bigot is a person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions”. So, in being so aggressive in accusing Brexiteers of being narrow minded, they themselves have developed rigid ideas of what’s right and wrong and have become themselves narrow minded. In their efforts to prove others narrow minded, they themselves have become bigots.    

And I came across an example in the workplace recently when a client of mine said her boss told her that she needed to be calmer, and yet this same boss was the most hectic and stressed person she knew.

When you start to spot projections then you can start to say yourself, hang on, this is not about me, this is about them!

Truth 2: You can’t change your nightmare boss

Who hasn’t wished that they could change something about a manager. But that’s just what it is — wishful thinking. It is neither your job, nor is it healthy for your sanity, to think that you can change your manager’s temperament. So the second truth is this…

You can work around them! You can change. But you can’t change your boss.

I do often hear my clients say: “This is me and that’s the way I am! It’s part of my personality.” But if your personality is not currently getting you what you want, and you’re unhappy with your boss, you’re going to have to be less precious about your personality and instead focus on what you need to do to get into a situation you’re happy with. And know that our personality is not set in stone. As Satre said: Existence preceded essence. By taking personal responsibility and knowing that we are always free to choose we can change anything — even our personality. 

3rd Truth: You get what you focus on

When I was still playing rugby, just about every coach I ever had talked about what they didn’t want. “Don’t miss tackles” they’d say, rather saying what they actually wanted us to concentrate on by saying “Make precise, hard tackles”.

One of the most important things you can do is to focus on what you actually want (as opposed to what you don’t want).

Instead of focusing on what we want, we usually either think two things:

    1. What we haven’t got, how bad it is — but this keeps us stuck in the past, blaming and complaining. It’s easy to villainise your boss, to stand him judgement over him and blame him for your misfortune. And while you’re expecting your boss to be difficult — that’s what you’ll find because that’s what you’re looking for.
    2. We set up an idealised version of how things should be — but this keeps us stuck wanting our boss to be different and we loop round to TRUTH 2: you can’t change your boss.

These three truths can only be applied if you take personal responsibility for your behaviour and you proactively go out and seek to take back control of your relationship with your manager. 

To find out how, take a look at our online training video courses on How to Deal with your Nightmare Boss.

If you’re looking for an online course specifically for business soft skills, take a look at our list of online classes for managers and leaders. We provide some the best online business courses for managers and leaders. If you want to become upskilled in the workplace, our online training videos for the workplace are a combination of training videos, online classes and self-completion training tools, as well tutor support.


Written by Peter Willis, Co-founder and course tutor at

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