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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.

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. 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

      • Yvonneq on July 30, 2020 at 10:42 pm

        My boss makes me feel stupid in front of others & he super religious but date we say anything to him about anything
        Yes he stressed, so are we, how come they can get away with it
        Why can’t they lock themself away till they feel better & take a chill pill,

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

      My boss is all of these!!!!

  2. Franc Neary on November 28, 2018 at 9:06 am

    Unfortunately, if you want to learn how not to do things, a trip to Vietnam might be necessary. Here managers are given training sessions on how to undermine the efforts of their staff, routinely belittle them and then stress that they want to be forward-facing international organisations! The sad part of my particular experience of this is the fact that many of the companies I have dealings with are in the education arena, sending students completely unprepared for life in the US, Australia or Europe.

    • Bailey on July 19, 2019 at 5:16 pm

      I was recently hired for two weeks, I had moved two hours away. The boss would constantly belittle me and the other employee who had been there a week before me. He would not allow me to make phone calls? Would not train me and wanted me to study scripts on EVERYTHING, which I did and pages of insurance! I kept myself busy and still worked hard but yesterday evening told me I was not catching on? Insulted me , told me he would give me another week of “training” I told him my part of what I had done for him, told him no thank you with another week, shook his hand and said great to meet you…

  3. Winner on August 31, 2018 at 9:07 pm

    I like your article, your #5 The put-down boss is I have been dealing with. Not one boss, two bosses, if I knew such situation, I wouldn’t take the offer, I have been the company over a year, the “put-down” boss is always negative, it doesn’t matter right or wrong, I felt like he ‘s born in the wrong way. I filled formal complain, then he is removed and replaced by his boss whom is bad just like the others, and they are like twin brothers, they are collusion. It’s tough situation but I am a fighter, can’t just quite.

    • Kristy on June 1, 2019 at 4:38 pm

      My supervisor is a carbon copy of #5. Just the other day he said to me “you’re like a child”. I asked him what he meant by that. He replied “because you’re always wanting to learn new things”. He NEVER, EVER gives me more responsibility, despite my excelling at my current role. He NEVER says “good job” or anything positive. There is a guy there who is a team lead, and my supervisor told me that he is grooming the guy’s brother to be a team lead. That’s just wrong. The supervisor even admitted to me and two other girls that he plays favorites. I’m about to file a formal complaint against him via Human Resources. It’s crystal clear to me now that the only reason I’ve not advanced is because of this particular supervisor playing favorites, belittling me and not being supportive of my efforts when around those ‘ who matter’. It is sad when the 2nd shift supervisor has been trying to get me to come off my shift and go work on his shift.

      • Jim smith on March 5, 2020 at 10:25 pm

        I feel the same way my supervisor is not supportive and has been rude several times. I often think of ending my life.

    • Cahil Chaulkk on June 19, 2019 at 7:29 pm

      It is funny that you have two put down bosses. I also have two. I suffered a severe head injury and lost a lucrative engineering carreer. I ended up working for a decent company in an entirely new field. Unfortunately, after a year, new management came on the scene. Because I am slow on the uptake at certain times, I am now called stupid and other things I cannot repeat here. This is on a daily basis. My head injury creates enough stress and I feel trapped. It is difficult to deal with and I hope that someday I will get out. I know that someday I will be okay. Karma is good for me. I hope that karma is good for the owners of the company as well. The owners work hard and are excellent people. I was a good and respectful boss and I hope to be again soon. Keep up the good fight.

  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

    • HK Knowlton on November 28, 2018 at 12:15 am

      I’m very curious how you handled this situation, and about the outcome? I’ve seen this type of intentional managerial behavior before in various locations in the US, and other than leave the company, I’ve seen very few viable alternatives. The exceptions might be:
      Being a member of a legally protected class (race, religion, gender, etc)
      Having friends in high up positions that will call out the disrespect
      Corporate culture that efforce respect at every level, meet with leaders and/or HR.
      Calling out dirt on the offending management(?)

      If it is a bully / victim situation, and the victim has no way of of knowing or changing the victim designation, what can you do.

  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.

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