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5 Types of Difficult Lab Supervisor and How to Handle Them

Two people shaking hands over a table, with a third person involved in the meeting, possibly having had a resolution meeting as a strategy for dealing with a difficult lab supervisor.

Science attracts so many different and quirky personalities that you are bound to have some people with whom you just don’t get along – conflicts happen, and there are many strategies you can take to deal with conflict in the lab. But when your lab supervisor is the problem, it can be a big issue for you.

So, what should you be doing when dealing with a difficult lab supervisor?

Well, sometimes the best advice is to just move on to a position or environment that is more suited to your personality. However, in many cases, if you can understand your lab supervisor’s personality type, it can help.

Five Types of Difficult Lab Supervisors, and How to Handle Them

Here are some of the different types of particularly difficult personality traits I have found in lab supervisors I have worked with, along with a few ways to try 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 they will use an indirect means of criticizing you instead. 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 any reaction may be seen as you “taking it the wrong way” and others may not always see the problem.

The only way to deal with passive-aggressive behavior is to recognize it and call it out at the time it is happening. You don’t need to be rude or aggressive back. Simply let the person know that their comment was not OK and that their rudeness is unnecessary.

The idea is to bring their behavior out into the open. You will feel good about defending yourself without resorting to backbiting or complaining, and chances are that once they realize that it doesn’t work on you, they will stop.

2. The Manipulator

Some lab supervisors can demonstrate qualities of manipulative behavior. This is particularly common where there is a large power difference with regard to education or authority.

You are the subordinate here and so are anxious to make your lab supervisor happy and to prove your worth. You may find that you are saying ‘yes’ to things without really wanting to. The problem is that this type of lab supervisor may not be looking out for your best interests, having you running off in multiple directions and not focusing on your career goals because it suits their needs.

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 to notice when you are not progressing in the direction you have 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 supervisor 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 your lab supervisor look good.

Setting boundaries at the beginning is key.

3. The Unfocused Supervisor

Having a supervisor who lacks focus can be exhausting for the people reporting to them.

This type of lab supervisor has so much energy – they want to do everything and want it done yesterday. They constantly commit to more projects without checking with the people who actually do the work. Their positive energy is infectious and it can feel great to be so productive.

The problem occurs when you are starting new projects or experiments every day. Priorities change daily, or sometimes hourly, and you can’t finish a task before a new one is added to your to-do list. 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 in a timely fashion.

The best way to address this situation is to have a talk with the supervisor – but be prepared! Make a list of every project you have going, where it is 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 supervisor wants to add more to your list, give them an honest assessment of when it could be started. When they insist that it must be started earlier, ask them which project on the list should be bumped off.

The idea is to deliver a dose of reality – show them how all of the commitments are overlapping 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 are finished.

The supervisor wants 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 supervisor often doesn’t 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

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 won’t 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 lab supervisor 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 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 (even if your device is off) as an indicator that you are focused and can’t be disturbed.

If constant interruptions are occurring in the lab, set your timer to go off in 1–2 minutes. If you are being called to your supervisor’s 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 Supervisor

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 method of dealing with a difficult lab supervisor of this type is to make sure you don’t work for someone like this to begin with.

During your interview, make sure you talk to others in the group or lab, and you may also want to check references for the supervisor with others who worked with this person and left the group.

If you do find yourself in a situation where you have been subjected to verbal insults, if you are not overly intimidated, try speaking to them 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.

Take-home Message for Dealing with a Difficult Lab Supervisor

Labs, like all workplaces, are dynamic, with many different personalities all needing to work together. It is not uncommon that two people just don’t click and personality clashes will occur – just make sure that you deal with the aftermath as professionally as possible.

The answer to any uncomfortable situation with a difficult lab supervisor or co-worker is always to be positive and 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 lab supervisor 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. What types of supervisor personalities have you come across during your time in the lab, and what methods have you used for dealing with a difficult lab supervisor?

Originally published 17 March 2009. Updated and republished 10 December 2014. Reviewed and updated on 10 January 2021.

Two people shaking hands over a table, with a third person involved in the meeting, possibly having had a resolution meeting as a strategy for dealing with a difficult lab supervisor.

75 Comments

  1. Monica on February 24, 2020 at 2:24 am

    I work for a small startup firm. Boss is the owner and manager who calls ALL the shots, and I’m the one and only office staff/secretary/admin. So it’s just me and the boss. Boss is an immigrant who probably failed to find a decent enough job here, and thus acquired this startup so he could be independent. But he has absolutely no managerial or ‘people’ skills. He talks down to his staff, belittles, etc. He even drove out a rather focussed and skilled admin assistant that we used to have, due to his attitude. And his main focus is MONEY, which he ruthlessly pursues!

    Many of the work activities are collaborative (between me and boss) and during those times he gives extremely vague and ambiguous instructions, because I can tell that he himself is rather confused and also lacks English skills, and when I make a mistake or fail to ‘get it’ as a result, he gets irritated and belittles me as if I’m stupid! It’s so humiliating!! I am a passive and quiet person, and am not really in the habit of talking back. Objectively speaking, my boss needs me because of my business school degree, the superior spoken and written communication skills I offer, my efficiency, etc. But he always finds ways to indirectly sabotage my efforts and then make me look like the incompetent one, and behaves as if he’s done me a great favour by giving me this job! The pay is miserly, but still I don’t complain. It’s a startup after all. But I feel like an idiot everyday at work, getting more and more confused, walking on eggshells, and making clumsy mistakes that I never used to make!



    • Lightning on March 11, 2020 at 9:34 am

      Same thing happened to me. My boss doesn’t know anything about my job. But she acts like know everything. Even though, she is just a boss’s wife.



  2. K on August 10, 2019 at 10:22 pm

    My boss is the combination of all the above mentioned traits. I dunno how to manage her at all.



  3. russel on April 6, 2019 at 8:48 pm

    I think I’m lucky because my boss is so humble and down to earth person he supports me always and take care of all workers.



    • Romy on July 2, 2019 at 8:55 pm

      I need help with a manager who has overbearing and controlling behavior and uses verbal insults at the drop of a hat. She wants to be copied in very email I send out to clients and is micro-managing every grammar and punctuation/spaces.She wants things to be done by a certain hour within the day and shouts down if things are taking longer( even with budgets where you need precision). I feel very threatened in such a hostile environment.The director whom I report to is helpless in front of her as she manages the show and is a veteran in her field.
      What do I do? Please help



    • Jen on February 15, 2020 at 2:10 pm

      My boss is all of these!!!!



  4. Rick on April 12, 2018 at 7:49 pm

    This article is very well written. Thank you!



    • Shavon C Forrest on June 8, 2018 at 4:44 am

      The article has a wealth of great content but it took a great deal of energy to overlook the grammatical errors within the text. The word too is used as (also) and know should be used as in know information. Maybe have someone proof read for small details such as this because it can be a hard read for some to follow.



      • Alexander on August 16, 2018 at 11:36 am

        Maybe being overly critical? I didn’t have any issues with reading his well written article, but that’s just me.



      • Dani on December 1, 2018 at 7:53 am

        You sound like the bosses described on this article.



        • Agitated on December 26, 2019 at 8:22 pm

          Lol yes she does!!!



      • Peter on June 19, 2019 at 9:44 pm

        That is just petty comment to make



  5. Ritesh Sharma on March 31, 2018 at 5:30 am

    Thanks a lot for these wonderful article, i have been looking for similar kind of information and stumbled on your article which i think is great help for people like us and i am sure i am going to bookmark this for sure.thank you.



  6. Maza on November 7, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    I have working for 3 years with 3 different managers and just 2 months I have another boss . The time he came he needed my support to learn most of his job and I did my parts. Now that he knew the job , he is being rude .. sarcastic, double face and unfair , he asked me to do other people job giving a reason that because I give the idea and it’s team work , the way he asked me it’s kinda in a rude way when I told him nicely that why would not it be better and faster to ask the concern department person to do it as that’s what’s they are doing instead of asking me to write the sop for them and asking the details from them ? He replied noooo I assign you to do it???? While they never give me the details for each follow up I did and when I update him about the progress he was pressuring me to do it by myself ? In other hand he will call me each time there is task from his boss he annoy me with every minute call asking what’s it’s there while things are very clear , written and explained . Does he need a secretary too? He talks nicely to other staff and to me i front of other people while he talks very rude and sarcastic to me on the phone or in front of his people ( his nationalities and his friend who is the one brought him to this job ) both of them are supervisor like me but different departments. He gave me their job , i feel it is unfair and racism . I complained about this to his superior but he denied everything.
    I’m so sick of this situation , I’m crying and I’m looking for another job . I am so frustrated, oh yes he also rudely asked me not to talk to anyone in HR .



  7. Cheyne on September 12, 2017 at 8:05 am

    I’m not sure what category my boss comes under basically because he’s not really any help, he just owns the company. It’s like he has to prove he is the best and most important person there. He goes round giving orders, which people pretend they will do then do it the right way they already knew. Then he will phone customers that have already been dealt with because he isn’t actually aware that people are way ahead of him. He thinks we need him or we’d have no idea what to do when really, the company would benefit from him just leaving. He will also give me orders to do something I know inside out (and better than him for sure) in front of people to make sure everyone knows that he is in charge of me. If someone new is hired he will come by and act like I need his help to help the new person. Basically no one is in charge but him. Everyone else is equal and he is the top man.



  8. Jay Saoirsse on July 23, 2017 at 9:35 am

    I can say that I have a put-down boss. I am just a fresh graduate, but the company that I am working right now gave me a kind of position where you need to deal with big responsibilities and that is the Secretary to the President. They gave me first the job of Invoicing Clerk, but on my final interview, they’ve told me that I am not fit for this position and for them I am fit to be in the position of “OFFICE STAFF” to the President not knowing that that “OFFICE STAFF” means “SECRETARY”. Who knows about that??? And I’ve been hearing rumors that our President is an insulting boss and people telling me, “I wish you the courage and strength”, “Good luck”, “You still have time to get out of that position”. And it feels so frightening to hear those comments. The worst of all is that I still have a 5-year contract on that company. So yeah, good luck to me :'(

    [Edited for language]



    • Jane on October 20, 2017 at 9:10 am

      We have the same position. How was your job? How is your relationship with the President? And how do you handle him/her?



  9. Robert mandikisi on July 6, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    I worked for three years before I received anew boss….
    During this period I managed the section nicely without any problem….till the new boss has to come….also I worked with him another two years with no problem….
    The third year he started showing his behavior of taking out my computer and he said I am playing music and etc…after acoupple of months he brought back the computer and once again he told me to get out from the office with any mistake……and till now am still like some one who doesn’t want to work..and what could I do with a such story? Please help me…
    Thanks
    Regards



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