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5 Types of Difficult Lab Supervisor and How to Handle Them

Posted in: Dealing with Fellow Scientists
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.

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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.

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  1. Workerfedup on June 5, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    My boss has forced me to sit beside where he sits. All other team member sit where they want. If i ask a question he pop quizes me on a document, while all is listening.
    He doesnt do these things with the other team member. He has favorites who slack and sit and dont do not work when ever they dont feel like it, though we are all have the same quota.
    I even tried to pick my own seat like the others and he moved my sear right back to where sits, and can watch me closely. Half way thru today he stood watching me, then said my score to his favorites stating i was in the top 3. It was like he wanted them to try to beat me and catch up.
    He did not do this with tge other 2 top score people today. Also he went to them and told them their score. He never came to me and told me mine. I had to go to him. He refused to look at me when he said my score was very high. He complimented the other 2 people but not me.

    I told him i took extra typing lesson in free time and all he said was i can tell.

    He also makes jokes at my expensive. He tells the jokes to his lazy favorite people

    Like today he says “i thought meeka scarwd you both away” he was saying this to his favorite. They have yet to make the quot3 but he keeps treating them like valuable employees. Yet i am making over the quota with outstanding accuracy. His favorite said he was tired this week so now he is only on light duty. He came in on a monday and sat most of the time during nothint in front of the boss. The boss was sensitive to him being tired. Yet i worker ten times as hard, going over the quota, so tired and over worked that i was hyperventalating and sweating all over. Even a co worker said “stop and get some water. I am worried about u”

    Yet his “favorite” did like 10% percent work on a monday and was treated like a baby

    If this continues i am going to head manager cause i refuse to be micromanaged and i am a top scorer and a big joke to the his favorites and then my hard work blown off while others are complimented to the entire group

  2. caltranssux on May 14, 2017 at 6:52 pm

    How about a narcissist coworker related to the even more narcissistic boss? Coworker just started, knows nothing but is bullying and bossing everyone around. He is critical of everything, buts into things that aren’t his business and doesn’t do his share. This is a very small govt office. Everything at any govt agency is based on connections. So appeal is not possible. I have decided to leave but until I can find something else, be distant and non commital. Always with a smile. Just another of lifes challenges

  3. Billy on May 8, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    I have a passive aggressive manager that doesn’t give a dang if you like his attitude or not. He makes inappropriate comments, sometimes even racist comments about every race or color group. He manages to get away with doing this because he is buddies with HR management so not really a lot can be said or done. This same manager will also not hire women or people who’s name he cannot pronounce. I have watched him for 3 years put down a coworker for his weight, his family issues, and anything else the manager can find to belittle him. I’m currently stuck in this situation until I can find a job that pays as well as this one since some of the passive aggressive behavior has now been directed toward me since I disaggreed with him one time in 3 years.

  4. N on May 7, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    Recently I’ve come across a situation at work where I became very sick. I’m in the process of switching meds, (antidepressants) and the withdrawal symptoms are beyond horrible.
    My boss knows my religious affiliation, and he also knows the meds I’m on. Last week I said I can’t work like this I feel like crap. First he says ok go home, second he says starting 5/8 I need you to be here etc… I said let me see how I feel after taking a break in the next 30 min. His response was go see a Dr. and I dnt need you here if your worthless. Which really pissed me off. With all the crap going on that’s the last thing I need to hear, especially since I’m very hardworking. I’ve thought abt going to HR, and talking to them. But I need a job, I help my family and it’s hard enough to find work these days for minority. I dnt wish on anyone the symptoms I’ve had, or treatment I’ve had. U can’t change the religion or race you associate with. But some ppls asshole comments are ridiculous. He did come up to me after 10 min of that happening wen I was crying at my desk, Becuz any normal human being would feel hurt given they put their 110% in their work and my body was adjusting to meds.

  5. Narina Sigma on March 19, 2017 at 4:19 am

    Hi, I am a frustrated architect, worried about how to set boundaries to my PhD supervisor who has accepted my application to help him at his design class two weeks ago. Everything was fine during the first two classes although I was sceptical when, in what I at first felt as an effort to approach and get more friendly with me, he mentioned a few- not very personal – but quite detailed things about the house he grew up and lives in, his disagreement with local government about the high taxes he needs to pay – a common problem in Greece where I live that we all have to face. Writing this down I realise it doesnt sound awkward but what I felt was that my supervisor he was beginning to send mixed messages. He was chatting as if we were friends but Due to my position and relation to him I felt that I was required only to listen and be interested as i felt it inappropriate to talk about my own financial troubles.. I was a little bit stressed the following days but could not understand why. So far though i was a little bit worried but nothing more. The next time we met at class he asked me if I would be comfortable to address him not in plural but by his first name ( which in greek is used as a way to show respect and also maintain a kind distance). I was not very comfortable but i said ok. again the following days I was upset wondering if i am crazy to feel flattered but also worried and unsure about all this friendliness. During the next lesson while in class at some point he sat next to me and told me that I could participate and comment as much as I want and told me not to hesitate. I was not stressed by that as I felt that it was trully a suppottive gesture and I felt appreciated. At the end of the same day he elaborated and told me that he considers me to be an equal partner in this class, that he is not the typical proffessor worried about ierarchy and power and that he considers me to be his equal partner in this collaboration. But right after he was quite patronising telling me ” go girl, speak up and particupate more… Find some courage, go go go”. That night altough i was telling my husband what a cool guy he is not worrying about exercising power,I was feeling hyper and confused wondering and judging me for feeling stressed for no reason. I was also sceptical about the fact that he also told the students that they can address him with his first name and not in plural, which I found very awkward and uneccessary, even hypocritical as it would be very difficult for a student to actually do this and speak to their professor the way they speak to their friends. My anger and frustration were raised when directly after that in the next class he stood me and the students up and we had to wait for him for half an hour. I was placed in a difficult position, felt underestimated and had to wait with the students in a corridor unable to answer any questions about why we are running late as I was not informed. I felt that this was a power exhibition and it was totally opposite to his words. He appeard half an hour late but did not even say sorry. I was angry but unfortunately supressed it and this resulted in me having a panick attack during the class and struggling not to show. I was very upset and i felt unappreciated and insulted, taken for granted. The next time I had difficulty to go to class and I had to work hard with myself to find the courage. I did go and there was another attempt to remove boundaries. While in class and listening to a students presentation he leaned and said “i am attending a convention on Monday, so manage the class on your own. Ok? You are good, you ve got this…” At first I was surprised and by just announcing it to me in such a way he never gave me the chance to discuss this or ask me if I wanted to fo it or not. i I have 10 year teaching experience so my problem was not that I do not feel confident to teach the class, my problem is this patronising behaviour. I somehow managed to say that I am not so sure about thuis and at that point he told me to have a brief meeting at the end of the class. I went ti his office and he was very patronising again telling me that I exagerate by thinking about it, that i was very good so what was my problem, adking me ” isnt it a shame for the students to miss the class” as if i was responsible for the problem and not his absense. He was treating me like a child and a weirdo fir saying no to this opportunity. He was also sarcastic when I used plural agsin in an attempt to set some boundaries between us again. He was also saying “push yourself a little, show some courage” etc. i was very upset but said i would let him know soon. He was treating me like some nutcase and seemed disappointed when i was leaving so after a few hours I called and said i would do it. I regreted it the same minute. Anyway he said he was going to call me the next day after speaking to the secretary to let me know the arrangments for picking up the classroom key and laptop. This was Friday and i am still waiting for his call! I am extremelly angry at him and myself for not sticking to my initial denial and I am very very frustrated and agitated, unable to sleep as I simply dont want to go in on Monday. I am very angry and worried. I know i am quite sensitive as I come from a family with serious boundary issues and i am constantly questioning if i am over reacting.. I dont know what to do as he is attending a convention abroad and i trully, really do not want to do the class on monday… but now i have said yes and how can I go back on this desicion. Also i am worried because all this behaviour is suported and related to his left political approach, so he is exhibiting this, for me, lack of stability and boundaries as a free and liberating framework when I believe that these are only wishful words and idealised thoughts and in reality the lack of boundaries produces stress and anger. I dont know what to do. Felling scared, angry, guilty and questioning weather i am over reacting even if I feel I have a true point here. Thank you in advance for any help and comment…

    • mallory on April 9, 2017 at 9:48 am

      As Nancy Reagan said, “Just say no.”

    • Jaime Solarinzo on March 25, 2018 at 12:57 am

      It can be a task getting point across when typing a brief version listing concerns, Im leaning towards personality conflict, there are quite a few people w/ strong personalities that could use a filter and there are personalities that are very conservative always by the book his personality is challenging for you and has you on edge now you’re defensive w/ everything I’m not taking a cheap shot It can be stressful when a person presses buttons. Just to ease your frustration try to relax it’s not healthy slowing someone to have control over our emotions but attempt to continue setting boundaries

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