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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.

95 Comments

  1. Deb on March 21, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    I’m 61 and it has taken me a long time to find a job mainly because of my age. I have a good CV and lots of experience but in today’s world that doesn’t matter. The young are most desirable- not golden oldies like you and me.
    My advice is to stay put. The older you get, the harder it is to find a job.



  2. 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.



    • Daniel on April 6, 2020 at 10:18 pm

      Monica — Sounds to me that your boss is very likely one of an East-Asian heritage. In case you’re wondering or confused, that’s really the standard norm in which they run things. And you got it right: They are only focused on making money. Loads of them by any means possible. If you are a passive and quiet person, you will be his favorite doormat that he will walk over and trample on whenever he feels like doing so. My advice to you is: Do your very best to seek out another job with another employer. It may not be as easy as it sounds like to find one. But, in the long-run, you will be thankful and relieved that you’ve done yourself such a favor. Hugs!



  3. 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.



    • Susan on March 19, 2020 at 5:28 pm

      So what if someone made up horrible lies that did not happen or wasn’t even said, then your boss ask for your address the says I’m going to mail you something and I want you to read this on your spare time. Comes to find out that it’s a book for dummies for management but don’t take it offensive. I have been in management for over 18 yes. I’m totally offended.. I don’t even know what to do . I love my job but I am not sure I want to work under this man any longer. He is younger than me and he always cussing and telling things he should not repeat.



  4. Valentino on August 3, 2019 at 8:48 am

    Hi, I work in a small town and my boss falls under “The unfocused boss”. Deadlines changes so many times, especially when we are near to the release. Requirement priority keeps changing so many times sometimes we get frustrated. In the last meeting if he says requirement A should get high priority as customer M wants it in the next release and when we are in the middle he says requirement B should be given higher priority as customer N wants it and hold requirement A for now. As per his previous approval we would have already committed to customer M and our sales team that we are going to release what they have asked in few weeks. End of the day customer M will call and keep bashing us or sales and sales keep putting pressure on us to give the requirement A. If we approach our manager, he says that its better to give them the release soon else they will hold the payment. We are so sick of this. I can’t leave this town either because of my family and old sick parents nor we have any other company which can compete with this.



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