Science attracts so many different and quirky personalities that you are bound to have a problem with some people. But when your boss is the problem, its a big problem for you.
So what do you do when you don’t get along with your boss?
Well sometimes the best advice is really to just move on to a position or environment more suited to your personality. But in many cases, if you can understand your boss’ personality trait, and how to deal with that personality type, it can help.
So here are some of different types of particularly difficult personality traits I have found in managers I have worked with, along with a few ways to get along with each type of person.
1. “Did I hear that right?” The passive aggressive personality
Passive aggressiveness is a strategy used when a person basically isn’t able to confront issues directly so instead will use indirect means of criticizing you. It could be in the form of comments or actions that make you question yourself or cause you to make mistakes.
It is difficult to address because oftentimes it may be seen as you “taking it the wrong way” and so others may not always see the problem.
The only way to deal with passive aggressive behavior is to recognize it and address it at the time it is happening. You do not need to be rude or aggressive back. Simply let the person know that their comment was not ok and that their rudeness is not necessary.
The idea is to bring their behavior out into the open. You will feel good about defending yourself without resorting to back-biting or complaining and chances are that once they realize that it doesn’t work on you, they will stop.
2. Manipulative personality
Some managers can demonstrate qualities of manipulative behavior. This is particularly common where there is large power difference with regards to education or authority.
You are the reportee are anxious to make your boss happy and to prove your worthiness. You may find that you are saying yes to things without really wanting too. The problem is that this type of boss may not be looking out for your best interest but their own and so have you running off in multiple directions and not focused on your career goals.
In a way this feels like a compliment because you are taking care of so much and feel validated in your job. But it is important to know when it has gone too far and now you are not progressing in the direction you set for yourself. The most critical thing is to learn to recognize when it is happening and then to address the specific situation with your boss privately.
It may be uncomfortable if you are not used to speaking up, but you will develop great skills in managing others (managing up) and with a little skill and patience you can be sure to keep your career on track while still making the boss look good.
Setting boundaries at the beginning is key.
3. The unfocused boss
Having a supervisor that lacks focus can be exhausting for the people reporting to him or her.
This type of boss has so much energy and wants to do everything and wanted it done yesterday. They commit constantly to more projects without checking with the people who actually do the work. Their positive energy is infectious and it is great to be so productive.
The problem occurs when you start projects or experiments every day. Priorities change daily, or sometimes hourly, and you can’t finish a task before a new one is put upon you. The only way to keep up is to work very long hours and even then your head is barely above water. This type of situation will lead to burnout if not handled timely.
The best way to address this situation is to have a talk with the boss and have prepared a list of every project you have going and where it is at in terms of being finished and the deadline if there is one.
Explain how you prioritized the list and what you feel are the most important projects to complete before taking on more. If the boss wants to add more to your list, give them an honest assessment as to when it can be started. When they insist it must be started earlier, ask them which project on this list should we bump off?
The idea is to bring to their reality all of the commitments so they can understand the volume of work on your plate. You need to be firm when stating that you simply cannot take on another project until projects x, y, and z get done.
They want to keep you working hard for them and making them look great. You just need to restore your sanity and feel good about having a job well done instead of 20 jobs all done poorly.
This type of boss often does not realize the extent of your frustration until you discuss it so it may come as a shock when you finally draw the line.
4. The micro-manager boss
Depending on the type of worker you are, a micro-manager can be a benefit or a nightmare. If you like to have a lot of direction and attention, you won’t mind a micro-manager at all. However, if you prefer to work independently, you will not be a good match with a micro-manager.
This type of supervisor will check in with you every 5-15 minutes to see how you are progressing. You know you are in trouble when the boss positions your desk or cubicle as close to their office as possible.
To survive micro-management, you can try a couple of techniques. One is to find another place to focus on your work; whether you need to read papers or work on a powerpoint presentation, find an empty conference room where you can focus without being disturbed. If leaving your desk is not an option, try putting on headphones or listening to your ipod (even if it is off) as an indicator that you are focused and can’t be disturbed.
If the constant interruptions are occurring in the lab, set the time to go off in a 1-2 minutes. If you are being called to the boss’ office while trying to get your lab work done, bring the timer with you and let them know you only have a few minutes before you need to get back to your samples.
5. The put-down boss
I saved this for last because this is probably the worst situation of all. It is difficult to handle a supervisor who rules by negative reinforcement. Most people will not last under these circumstances and who would want to?
The best approach is to make sure you do not work for someone like this.
During the interview, make sure to talk to others in the group or lab and also, you may want to check references for the boss with others who worked with this person and left the group.
But if you do find yourself in a situation where you have to be subjected to verbal insults, if you are not overly intimidated, try speaking to the person about it and give specific examples of when their language was inappropriate or crossed the line. If you don’t feel comfortable confronting the situation, it would be best to leave, plain and simple. No job is worth the anxiety and stress of dealing with abuse.
The workplace is a dynamic place with many differing personalities all needing to work together. It is not uncommon that two people just don’t click or that personality clashes will occur.
The answer to any uncomfortable situation with a boss or co-worker is always to be positive and to be constructive. Focus on the problem and not the person. Focus on how to work together and not how to get the other person to change – because they won’t. I can’t stress enough how important it is to leave any job with relationships intact.
Never insult the boss or management or retaliate on your way out. That is the surest way to never be hired again.
I only listed a few personality types that I have seen during my working years or as reported to me by colleagues. How about you? Do you need help handling a situation at your lab or office?
Originally published 17 March 2009. Updated and republished 10 December 2014.
Paula Stephan’s ‘How Economics Shapes Science’ both reassures and discourages any would-be scientist considering a six-and-a-half year jaunt through the United States’ doctoral system. According to Stephan, money drives everything in American science – from students’ willingness to earn tiny stipends for indeterminate lengths of time, to new graduates’ decisions between the tenure grind and […]
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