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Coping with a difficult boss

Careers clinic

When asked how he had managed to live so long, a 120 year old Bulgarian farmer interviewed on Radio 4 recently attributed his extraordinary longevity to two things: a simple, natural diet and the fact he had never worked for a boss.

Most of us are not so lucky and reporting to a superior is an integral part of our working lives.

But how well that superior performs in his or her job has a farreaching effect on our happiness and possibly our health.

Bosses can be bad for any number of reasons, although Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at UMIST, identifies six broad 'types' (see box below), each of which creates distinct problems for his or her unfortunate underlings.

Some bosses can be ghastly, says writer and business lecturer Judi James. In The Office Jungle (HarperCollins, £5.99), she writes: 'The only apparent respite from the stress and anxiety is to sit back and fantasise about ways of murdering them.'

Fantasies aside, the easy solution would be to hand in your notice, says James. However, she recognises this is not always practical and suggests that we 'put up and shut up', apply to move to another department or tackle things head on and try to improve the relationship.

Gerwyn Davies from the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development suggests communicating with your boss. 'Even if relations are strained, one should try to address the problem tactfully, ' he says. 'Don't shy away from saying what you feel and take the initiative by suggesting/asking for ideas for a solution that would meet both of your needs.'

On a more positive note, psychologist Noreen Tehrani believes that few bosses are actually 'out to get you' and you need to be sure your boss falls into this category.

'If not, they may have a lot to offer you once you get beyond their faults, ' she says. 'The real skill is to understand what sort of person they are, and win them over to your side. Then they will start to work for you.'

Key options

Try to address the problem tactfully

Try to improve the relationship

Move to another department

If all else fails, find another job

Bosses from hell

Which one do you work for ?

The workaholic boss

'Workaholism is like any other addiction, ' says Professor Cary Cooper. These people - and they are usually men - are totally consumed with work, even in their private lives, preferring to read management books in what little free time they have, or to play golf with business contacts. 'The good news now is that being a workaholic is no longer revered, ' Cooper says, 'in fact it's now seen as pathetic, as working long hours seldom, if ever, means a person is more efficient and it usually means that they get ill'.

What should I do?

Do not be dragged into the workaholic's way of working.

Instead, let them know that you have a life beyond the workplace.

The jargon user

This type of boss is very ambitious.

'He or she wants to be perceived as 'with it' and will use as many Americanisms as possible, like Gus from Channel 4's Drop the Dead Donkey, ' says Cooper. 'This may be to disguise their inability to do their job and you will probably end up having to do this person's work for them.'

What should I do?

Ask them what they actually mean when they blast off some jargon in your direction. Do not feel you have to speak the same language. Call their bluff and stick to plain English which clarifies your role and the job you have to do.

The bully

We can all recognise a bullying boss; someone who constantly undermines their staff, harassing them and sapping their self confidence. Although the impact of their actions is the same, says Cooper, bullies can be divided into two distinct types: There's the 'psychopathic bully', who needs to put others down, and is never going to change, and the manager who is so stressed that he, or she, just can't cope.

What should I do?

A psychopathic bully is not going to change. You should inform human resources if you are experience bullying of either type, and if nothing is done, get out.

The shy boss

'The very shy, diffident manager is usually harmless, ' says Cooper, 'and doesn't necessarily fight your, or anyone else's corner.' He or she doesn't want to upset the apple cart. (Think George, the wimpish bloke in the cardie from Drop the Dead Donkey. ) What should I do?

The shy boss is often happy to do what they are told so you could try giving them a 'helping hand' to improve things. Make sure their diffidence does not mean your department is being sidelined.

The ineffective boss

As their title suggests, these bosses are just not effective. They are the managers who don't understand what they're supposed to be doing. Maybe they have a 'good brand' or the right credentials, such as an Oxbridge degree, says Cooper, or perhaps they have just been with the company for too long. 'Thankfully there are fewer of these people around these days as companies can no longer afford them.'

What should I do?

Ineffective bosses are usually aware of their weaknesses and can therefore be very defensive - so watch out! Try to be clear about where their role ends and yours begins and make sure they do not claim the credit for your efficiency.

The schizophrenic boss

This is the type of boss who loves you at first and then 'goes off' you with the same passion. He or she can be extremely insecure and possibly very dangerous. The better you are at your job, the more threatened they feel and the nastier they become.

What should I do?

You can try playing games by attempting to make your schizophrenic boss feel good.

However, this will not help your career in the long run. Like bullies, bosses of this kind can do you real damage. It may be your best option is to look for another job.

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