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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. Tom on March 29, 2018 at 5:44 pm

    None of these 3 bosses are trustworthy and this business will fail. What the two of them did took gall and showed cowardice. This company will not succeed with this type of staff management.

    • Michael on August 20, 2019 at 6:10 am

      On the contrary that is just the opposite and it is sad. Especially the put down Boss… They usually hire those who are in a situation where they have a checkered past and the manipulation begins right in the middle of the interview and hiring. They look for people who feel they deserve less and they begin right way with manipulative statements I.e “I’ll tell you what… I’m gonna take a chance on you because I think everyone deserves another chance… Now I’m taking a risk on you and if you fail it’s my ass so please prove me right” or “We were looking for someone with a little more experience but I like you and have a good feeling about you” and the old “Ok I’m gonna cut to the chase here… I don’t tolerate employees who call out unless they are in the hospital (huge red flag) I expect you to be to work on time and leave your personal life at the door! If you don’t feel like you can do this let me know now, no hard feelings, I just don’t want to waste either of our time… Why don’t you think on it tonight, I have some more interviews, and if I do give you a call, all I want to hear is you are ready to be apart of this team” There is a common denominator between all these scenarios that many of us have experienced at some point or another… They all have the same agenda “We are doing you a favor” No healthy work environment sends new employees on the floor feeling like they are already on level 2 probation…. this is part of the manipulation tactic. They break you down and belittle you as a person and in turn most people set out to “Prove themselves and show the boss who was (kind) enough to give you a chance that you plan on making him look like a genius for hiring you…. You start to take extra shifts, volunteer when you don’t want to, next thing you know you are obsessed with pleasing your boss and go the extra mile breaking your back for them and you are falling right into the trap. When you give a boss or any superior that much control over your self-esteem, you are on a collision course with self destruction. One of the biggest things bosses of this nature LOVE to do is ignore the incredible work you do and hard effort you put in, never calling out sick, covering for all the employees that have half you’re work ethic, in fact, you find yourself picking up the slack for lazy co workers by finishing a project they rudely left for you that was their responsibility to finish and they don’t even say a word either. Then you think things couldn’t get anymore frustrating, your boss pulls you aside and goes over a list of things he feels you are slacking on or need to improve on and this is when the real manipulative damage occurs! No one can put up with that for too long unless something is holding you to the job… They seek situations like this so they can get twice the work for half the price. I know a lot about this because of experience. I was that guy! I still am but I’m doing something about it! I’m trying to go into business for myself doing freelance work in Music Production, Mix/Master engineer, etc. I come from a family of business owners and I went down a path at a young age that cost me dearly. People prey on the weak or vulnerable and when you are coming to terms with yourself and realizing you did something to yourself and no one else is at fault, go out and try to rectify the decision… You make the perfect candidate for hire! Your job will be to work until you drop for half the wages of those who do 1/4 of what you do but they don’t have a “checkered” past and they usually have a decent resume and enough good references to walk right out and have a job the following week. Right now I am currently in the middle of a situation where my Wife also works for the same Boss and he intentionally belittles me in front of her and I feel helpless because we have our little family (We have a 6 yr old daughter) I can’t just bug out and take off, I can’t risk things like that anymore now that I am responsible for more than just me. We work in a restaurant and I am 34 going on 35 and have 8 years on the next oldest employee which is my wife and then the rest are younger girls who are just getting out of high school or going into college… What makes me sick to my stomach is how I’m not even close to being paid like a 34 year old man who has a family to take care of for one, I make less than 4 of the employees yet I’ve been employed with longer than they, do more than they (not tootin my horn I mean literally, there are machines and other tasks that either he or I do because a lot of these tasks require a lot of strength such as carrying 5 gallon buckets of piping hot fry oil to the dump spot, cutting 50 point blocks of cheddar and mozzarella in a machine that you literally have to push the cheese through with a lot of strength and stamina because you have to maintain that strength for 4 blocks that cut down into 9 pieces each, 3 pieces makes a bucket… So it comes out to 12 buckets of cheese which by the end even my arm still gets sore… Not saying woman CANT do this because I know plenty who can but a lot of these girls are young and the ones who currently work there are absolutely not going to cut cheese… The point is… This guy is pushing a lot of animosity and self doubt into my head and I’ve done a good job of blocking it out and staying humble but recently he has crossed incredible boundaries…. For one he pays my wife more than me which is f*cked up! We both are equally good employees and it really messes me up growing up in a home where my old fashioned father drilled into me that a real man takes care of his family and his wife! That can draw on my insecurities quite a bit. Another issue I’m having is he recently began to compare my work to my wife in front of her and saying she does a better job! Unless you lived under a rock you’re entire life, you know Men and Woman think differently and what’s important to one sex (GENERALLY SPEAKING) Is not so important to the other! It may not seem like a big deal to some people but a lot of men can quickly fall into a nice depression when they feel undervalued as it is our genetic purpose to fend for our families and to be the Man of the house and provide! I’m not a narcissist either! I want this for the right reasons! I can’t be the best me in an environment that pumps my brain with thoughts of inferiority! In front on my wife! It is demeaning to a Man! Especially when it isn’t true! My wife is a great worker and so am I! I know I deserve more than $11 an hour when others are getting $15!!! Because I have a felony on my record from 15 years ago! When I was young I was caught with party things I should not have had (like that never happens right?) Either way, my engineering career went down the tubes as far as working for another major company… I made a plan to humble myself and work anywhere and slowly save until I have some startup money… This guy has even had me repair his phones, network at the store, laptops and all! So he knows I’m an intelligent person, he sees the work I put in! I always show up and can be relied on! Tonight he put me down again, this time telling me that my Wife mopped the floor last week and she does a better job so ask her how she mops and do it like her… It took all of my power! When I mop I MOP! I pull all the stations out and really get in there! I put all my weight into it and when I’m done I am absolutely drenched in sweat from getting all the grime off the ground. My wife knows that shattered me, countless nights I was told “ok it’s good enough” while I said “no it’s not! I need to go over it one more time” I’ve snapped a mop handle in half from pressing and scrubbing so hard to get stains up! The point is… This guy is fn me up inside real good and it’s beginning to come home! It’s awkward because I get mad and tell me wife “thanks for backing me up! You know he’s way out of line and you just sat there and said nothing as if you believed he was right or maybe you just need compliment that bad as to where you’ll take on at my expense?” Now most of that stuff I said was unfair to her… She’s not the enemy here! A man putting another man down in front of his wife to me is not a real man. He has my by the balls though so how can I put him in his place? I tried looking for jobs more up my alley in the technical field, coding, web design, graphic design, audio work… I more than qualify but I can’t pass the background check over a single non-violent, poor choices felony from when I was a 21 yr old punk! People grow up! Have families! Settle down! I’m still paying for this and I’m getting to an age where I’m like wtf am I doing???!!! How long do I have to go punished For this BS! I’m always honest about it! I tell them upfront! Idk ???? all I know is… These kind of Bosses look for people like us! The “F-ups” I have to get my wife and I away from this guy before it turns us against each other.

  2. 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 .

  3. 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.

    • Belinda on July 24, 2019 at 3:10 am

      Don’t leave your job otherwise they get the advantage just get a knife & hack @ their desk or mange their computer

  4. 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?

  5. 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…

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