Addressing management issues

Edited by Christopher S. Frings PhD, CSP

Dealing with a difficult supervisor

Our supervisor treats
employees like grade school children, monitoring their every move. outside the department, everyone including management is afraid of her. She rules by intimidation and gets away with it. It is very hard to work with her on projects because it is her way, or NO way. How do we deal with a person like this?

Management is a profession, not
a right or inheritance. Superior management requires professional development. this supervisor may need additional training. supervisors should accept that there will be things they do not know and that finding better ways to do things is part of the job. an employee who is not performing may suffer from lack of ability, will or training.

To increase productivity in times of change, I strongly suggest to learn how to use the Platinum Rule1 to work more effectively with others. The Golden Rule implies that other people would like to be treated the way that you would. The Platinum Rule ( qualifies the Golden Rule by treating others the way they want to be treated. you learn to understand what drives people and recognize your options for dealing with them.

The Platinum Rule divides behavioral preferences into four basic styles: director, socializer, relater and thinker. Everyone possesses qualities of each to varying degrees, yet has a dominant style. The Platinum Rule teaches how to deal with each of these personality styles and how to determine which is the dominant style you or the other person exhibit.1 If you use The Platinum Rule when relating to this supervisor, you may have a more positive outcome.

Larry Crolla recommends, Talk to the chairman of the department or department director to see if either of them view this person the same way you do. If so, ask them to help intercede. If they do not, then you are between a rock and a hard place. People who manage are free to use whatever style they are comfortable with. Some people micromanage everything. With these people, all creativity resides in their sphere of knowledge, and daily challenges are always handled the same way. there is no opportunity for growth; and the group members will flounder as all motivation is removed. They will continue to perform but without drive as morale suffers. If this is the situation, you can wait for a change in managers or move on.

Alton Sturtevant suggests, The fact that your supervisor is able to intimidate management sets the tone of a situation that may be difficult or impossible to resolve favorably. In my experience, those personalities that live by the sword eventually die by the sword. Unfortunately, they may do a large amount of damage before the situation is resolved. Managers that give instructions and then look over your shoulder while you work cause a great deal of paranoia and do not engender a great following. develop a strategy of taking each new assignment, formulate an approach to the task, and discuss it with your supervisor, then ask for her input. When you have received her blessing, tell her that you will check back to seek more input or to report completion of the task.

Dr. Sturtevant adds, If she still gives close supervision, ask her if she has decided that your original approach or the pace of your progress is not acceptable. Continue a give-and-take, coach-to-student dialogue with her as often as needed. This process should help you learn her desired approach and allow you to gain her confidence in your abilities. If she keeps checking in, ask leading questions and provide her with hypothetical approaches to ensure that you both are communicating adequately as measured by her responses.

This type of interaction is certainly out of the norm in my experience, but may help both of you to develop a productive working relationship. Perhaps, in time, you will have her complete confidence to the point that she will allow you an even larger amount of freedom. Continue to treat her with respect in all of your dealings; maybe it will rub off. If all of this fails, try to discuss your interactions during your annual performance appraisal or ask for an interim evaluation.

Marti Bailey points out, The big challenge is to determine whether this supervisor is more difficult to work with than average or if her behavior exceeds acceptable limits. making this distinction is not only difficult but critical to the outcome. treating employees as if they were grade school children, monitoring their every move, could very well mean the supervisor thinks that no one can do the job as well as she or she fears losing control. that everyone else is afraid of her and she rules by intimidation, characterize someone who has an abusive nature. The description you provide suggests characteristics of both.

Ms. Bailey adds, Not all bosses are going to be friendly and trusting of their staff. the onus is upon employees to adjust their style of interaction to achieve a good working relationship and build trust. the balance of what you see is what you get is tilted in the bosss favor. Employees can learn much by studying their bosss behavior, and making changes in their own behavior that will influence positive interactions. if your boss is constantly following up on assignments she has made, try touching base with her frequently to show her your progress. If your boss tends to be volatile, be a calming influence rather than being defensive, losing control or feeling victimized.

You want to sell yourself and your ideas to your boss. understand her goals and determine how you can help her achieve them. In taking on the role of helpmate, modifications to your behavior should become clearer. Being able to move out of me mode and into we mode, distinguishes an employee who has achieved professional maturity.

If co-workers and others outside your department believe this supervisors behavior is or verges on abusive, document evidence. Be sure that your documentation is based on fact only, including dates, times and witnesses. abusive behavior includes cursing at or threatening employees. While being difficult and micromanaging are poor management skills, these are not typically considered abusive. a problem such as this should be brought to the person to whom the supervisor reports. If this person is unwilling or unable to help, contact your human resources manager or your employee assistance program, if you have one.

Bottom line. Not all bosses are going to be friendly and trusting of their staff, and employees must often adjust their style of interaction with their boss to achieve a good working relationship and build trust. This supervisor may need additional leadership training. Use The Platinum Rule1 to work better with people who have a different personality style than yours. If your supervisor exhibits abusive behavior and creates a hostile workplace, document this and discuss it with your HR manager.


  1. Alessandra T, and OConnor MJ,
    The Platinum Rule. New York: Warner Books, 1996.
Christopher S. Frings is an internationally known consultant and speaker on the topics of leadership, managing change, time management, reaching goals, and stress management. His consulting firm, Chris Frings & Associates, is in Birmingham, AL.

October 2003: Vol. 35, No. 10

© 2003 Nelson Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

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