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Be Connected: Help! My boss is stressing me out

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Human Resources

In an ideal world, we would all have fantastic managers. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. We have some advice for dealing with a boss who stresses you out.

Most of us are familiar with stress. We've discussed ways to fight it, but it's still everywhere in our lives, especially at work.

But what if the source of your stress at work is your manager or supervisor?

It's actually a pretty common experience. In fact, it could even be a sign that your boss is struggling with their own stress and mental health. You can start by contacting the Office of Human Resources or the Employee Assistance Program, but there are also individual actions you can take to make your own situation better.

Be Connected Stress 3

Help! My boss is overly emotional, volatile, intense, unpredictable, or reactionary.

If your manager or supervisor begins behaving like this, their stress level may be high — and they may be stressed for a good reason. Managers and supervisors' minds are often cluttered with agendas, projects, meetings, difficult decisions, and a shortage of time and resources. You may not always see everything that your boss is carrying on their shoulders.

When your boss reacts with excessive emotion:
  • Stay calm and resist responding until they cool down.
  • Once they are calm, you can try to clarify their concerns and any expectations they have for you.
Before you approach this stressed-out boss:
  • Ask yourself, “Am I blocked, needing input before I can proceed?” Determine the urgency of your question, and whether there is someone else who can help you for the time being. 
  • Try writing down your questions for your boss throughout the day or week, and have them ready to review when they have time to focus on you. 

Help! My boss rarely trusts anyone to do anything right, and feels that we will let them down.

Some bosses are control freaks. They do not want to delegate or assign critical tasks because they do not trust that employees will perform those tasks right. They may have had a bad experience that caused them to be distrustful, or they may feel inadequate. Even if they have a reason to be leery, it’s a problem when it interferes with the team’s success.

If you find yourself dealing with a distrustful manager:
  • Transparency is essential. Always be honest and forthright with this boss.
  • Provide regular updates on status so this boss knows and can feel comfortable with the progress you have made.
  • If you are facing hurdles in accomplishing a task, present the hurdle and your suggested resolution to this boss so they know you are working effectively.
  • Do not take risks or try things without discussing them and getting permission first.
  • Be clear about what you need, provide ample information about your plans, and listen carefully to their viewpoint.

Workplace relationships are multidimensional. Your boss’s behavior could be the result of dynamics you can’t see. There may also be other much more benign factors in place. We all go through life stresses. You may be dealing with someone who is suffering themselves. Be compassionate, and focus on results.

Help! My boss is so afraid of judgement or criticism that they won’t take even reasonable risks.

Your boss may be risk averse for many reasons—fear of failure, rejection, or conflict, to name a few. But it’s reasonable to expect decisiveness, consistency, and clarity from your boss. And when you aren’t getting them, it can be frustrating, as your contributions may feel diminished. 

To avoid setting this hesitant boss into a tailspin:
  • Slow down and stick to the responsibilities given to you. 
  • Follow all the procedures and processes in place. 
If you want to influence change:
  • Be patient. You may need to bring up your new ideas several times until they are comfortable discussing them.
  • Ask open-ended questions, especially if you sense they are being indecisive.
  • Give them a few options, and let them choose. 
  • Expect questions and prepare answers. Speak with confidence, and reassure them of your abilities.
  • Point out the risks associated with not doing things differently.
  • Follow up with a concise, bulleted list of key takeaways and action steps. That way, they can course-correct if there's been a misunderstanding. And if they change direction, you can refer to the list and ask for clarification.

Consider trying to empathize with this boss, and understand why they may behave this way. What risks are they fearful of? Why is the boss unwilling to take the risk? What makes them fearful? How do you handle hard choices or conflict today, and what can you learn from them about how to improve? Observing their behavior can be a powerful development opportunity for you.

Help! My boss is hard to read and not very communicative. They only communicate with me when absolutely necessary and even then, it is quite limited.

Effective management requires communication. But most people aren’t promoted to management for their people skills. Often, it’s technical expertise and seniority that leads to being in charge. As a result, your boss may be able to deal with complicated tasks, but incapable of a simple conversation. 

If your boss isn't the type to proactively reach out:
  • First, identify which communication channels they prefer. Some managers are terrible at replying to emails. Others don't do well in live conversations. Still others prefer texts.
  • Once you figure out the best way to get through to your boss, be the one to start the dialogue.
  • Consider asking for a standing weekly or biweekly check-in with your boss. Be sure to go in prepared with an agenda, so you're equipped to make the most of that time and get the information and insight you need from your boss. 

Some people prefer written communication, so they can think and articulate their response.

If your boss becomes overwhelmed by direct, face-to-face confrontation:
  • Give them space to think about things before you follow up with them. 
  • Limit spontaneous communication as much as possible. 
  • Try to articulate what you need in an email, and let them know that you can discuss further at their convenience. 

Help! With my boss, everything is all about them. They make me and others look bad in meetings, and take credit for others' ideas and work.

An arrogant boss enjoys exhibiting a sense of superiority while putting others down. People often act this way because it gives them a sense of control and power. They make themselves look good by making you look bad. But if you give them the reaction they're after, you can actually reinforce your boss's power trip. Even something like rolling your eyes when they speak may add fuel to their fire.

If your arrogant boss is driving you crazy:
  • Try to stay calm and professional and avoid shooting from the hip, no matter how tempting. 
  • Look for opportunities to demonstrate that supporting or building up the team will make the boss look even better. Remind your boss that the team’s success is their success.
  • Keep a written record of your and the team’s ideas and achievements.

Flattery and acquiescence may allow you to slip under their radar undetected for a while. But if you are struggling to do your job, sit down with them to discuss how their actions and comments affect your performance.

How to Approach this boss:
  • Keep your statements neutral and professional. Avoid personal attacks or emotional statements. 
  • Try using your boss's criticisms as a way to gain some common ground. Ask them what they would like you to improve or how the two of you can solve some of their concerns together.

Help! My boss is always coming up with strange, unreasonable, or impractical ideas. Their visions are either impossible to execute, or they don’t communicate them well.

Every leader has had unrealistic expectations—it’s their job to “think big”. But some bosses are unrealistic most of the time. They don’t take the facts into account, or they fixate on their latest flight-of-fancy at the expense of more pressing matters. 

When you work for one of these folks, you can feel like you’re being set up to fail.

Before you brush off their ridiculous demands, keep in mind:
  • It's unlikely this boss intends to be unrealistic or unfair. More likely, they have a rationale that they haven't communicated, or may not even know how to convey. 
  • You must understand what they actually want if you're going to deliver results for them.

Never tell an impractical boss outright that their dream is impossible. Lead them to their own conclusion by describing the steps you would have to take in order to get the results they desire:

How to talk to this boss:
  • Reassure them that you’re onboard before they’ll entertain practical realities.
  • Don’t just give them a list of problems they don't want to hear, steer them towards workable solutions
  • Use a lead-in like “Let me share with you what I think we would need to achieve this,"

If you need additional help dealing with your stressful boss, EAP is here for you.

If your situation doesn’t improve despite your best efforts, or your problems with your manager or supervisor are causing you unbearable stress, you don’t have to handle it alone. 

The City of Boston Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a free resource that empowers you to holistically manage your work and life well-being, which we see as comprised of five elements:

  1. Psychological: Positive emotions and resilience
  2. Physical: Health promotion, disease management
  3. Financial: Becoming literate in all things financial
  4. Work: Central to adult identification, human development, and functioning.
  5. Social: Quality of relationships, networking

The EAP focuses on preventing issues that can arise within these five areas through education, information, resources and skills. Counseling and support services and stress mitigation options are also available to you as an employee. 

If your relationship with your manager or supervisor is impacting your mental health, you can turn to EAP to get necessary help without any hassles, stigmatizations, or judgment. As a reminder, the program is available to City of Boston employees and their family members, retirees, participating authorities, and commissions. The service is available regardless of type of employment or length of employment. It's a confidential, neutral resource, and available at no cost.

We encourage any of you who may need assistance to please call the main line at 617-635-2200 this line is monitored throughout the day during business hours. The EAP hours are Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. - 6 p.m., with on call hours from 6 - 8 .p.m (instructions on how to reach the on call clinician are available on the EAP voicemail message). Please visit the Employee Assistance Program website for a list of the clinicians and additional resources available in your communities.


Looking for more ways to empower your employee experience? Visit the Be Connected page for additional employee resources, tools, and tips.

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