Bad boss or difficult manager? How to respond when you're getting overwhelmed.


Most people have encountered a bad boss or difficult manager at some point in their career. Not all bad bosses are bad people, often they've just been poorly trained, are unaware of their shortcomings, and nobody's openly approached them about it. However, some bad bosses are the result of pride, denial, ego, and in extreme cases — pathological narcissism. This article is a guide for dealing with a truly bad boss; we suggest taking a different approach to the poorly-trained boss.

When it comes to the bad boss, the key to dealing with them is knowing how to set clear boundaries and manage their expectations. If you don't know how to set boundaries or if your boss refuses to listen when you try to explain the challenges you're facing in your role — then maybe it's time to find a new (and better) job!

Know how to spot a bad boss

The first thing to know is how to spot a bad boss. Many people, usually those in the early stages of their careers, aren't even aware that their boss is at fault, or at the very least that much of what they expect doesn't fall under their employees' agreed job descriptions.

For example, are you expected to be available to answer calls, texts, and emails 24/7? Were you made aware of this when you took the position? Are you met with anger or criticised when you're unable to take care of out-of-hours tasks?

The problem is, once you play along for long enough, you raise your boss's expectations of you — these extra commitments become part of your role, but you aren't paid more for them. People-pleasers and those high in agreeableness often fall into this trap. Eager to impress, and keen to do their job well — they can end up taking on a tonne of extra commitments outside their job description and working hours. Then, in fear of disappointing their boss, or appearing weak and unable to carry the load, they say nothing whilst they slowly disengage from their job day by day.

Your expectations are important to consider when applying for new jobs, too. Ask exactly what they are from the get-go. If you're starting a new job, and you've not been told exactly what your job involves — this could be a sign of a bad boss who's planning to adapt your role at will. At the very least, it could be a sign of management issues or poor training within the organisation. Either way, don't be afraid to ask a potential employer to clarify your responsibilities.

Set boundaries, and stick to them

Think about your boundaries at work. What are they? If you don't know, then you haven't thought enough about it and should spend a bit of time considering what you're happy to put up with. A good starting point is to set your boundaries to your job description, then make tweaks from there.

For example, if your working hours are 9-5 Monday-Friday, then any time outside those hours, you are not expected to spend time on work commitments. This isn't to say you shouldn't be willing to do a favour here and there when it's truly needed, but it should be understood by both parties as a favour and gesture of goodwill on your part.

Again, this is where agreeable people struggle. Eager to please, and afraid of confrontation, they'll often just accept what they've been asked to do and crack on without saying a word. It may seem like the easiest, drama-free option, but it eventually leads to dissatisfaction and a feeling of not being respected. This is why it's so important to learn how to give a firm (but friendly) 'No' when it's required.

Being able to say no will protect you from more serious situations than just out-of-work-emails; a bad boss may try to push you into doing things that are against company policy, or get you involved in other unprofessional behaviours. The best way to deal with this is (again) by simply saying “No, I'm sorry, but I can't do this” and if necessary explaining why not (e.g. because it breaks company policy, or it's not part of my role).

A particularly bad boss — the Narcissistic Boss — will pick up on someone who rarely says no, and will consciously take advantage of their good nature. A simple “no” can serve as a shield to protect your career health against them. If they can't accept your no, or make you feel guilty or incompetent for saying it, then chances are you won't be working for them much longer, and certainly shouldn't be!

There's always a chance that they'll be removed from the position if enough people at the company highlight their behaviour to the senior level, or if their own boss doesn't get on well with them. So it's worth gauging things from your co-workers, before suddenly jumping ship.

Be clear with them

It's important to be as clear as possible with a bad boss. Don't beat around the bush or try to make your requests sound too polite. If you're unhappy with something, say so and ask for what you need instead of hinting at it.

Don't just back down from your stance if others aren't receptive at first; being bold will eventually help others understand where you're coming from and why you feel the way you do. If you're unsure about making a stand, talk to your colleagues and ask if they think you're being unreasonable, or if they feel the same way. If they do feel the same, you know you're not alone, and this should bolster your confidence in approaching your boss.

If they won't listen, or violate your boundaries — consider finding a new job. If your boss is not willing to work with you respectfully, if they can't accept that sometimes their people need time off, aren't available 24/7, or are unwilling to add additional responsibilities to their job without increased rewards — it's not going to get any better in the future.

You should never agree to be treated badly by anyone in the workplace. If there is no respect or consideration for your feelings, then you need to go elsewhere where you will be valued and taken care of professionally, as well as personally.


Know your worth, set boundaries, learn to say no, and respect yourself! If you can do those four things, you'll find it so much easier to deal with bad bosses and difficult managers. If you do those things, and still find yourself being treated unfairly, then maybe it's time to start looking for the right job for you — there will be plenty of organisations that'd be proud to have you on board!

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