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How to deal with difficult bosses, from the incompetent to the narcissistic

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Most people likely have had a bad boss or two, or will have one at some point in their careers.

Difficult-to-deal-with superiors in the workplace come in varieties — from the incompetent to the narcissistic — and each requires a different type of response from employees who want to be effective at their jobs. 

Insecure bosses with fragile egos, for example, require careful handling. Whereas, when being supervised by a micromanager, it's important to be assertive. 

And there are degrees of bad bosses as well — ranging from the benign to the intolerable and abusive. 

Here are tips from workplace experts on how to mitigate the emotional and physical toll of working for a bad boss, and when it's time to start looking for another job. 

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Dealing with a narcissist

Among the most challenging types of leaders to deal with are those who are narcissistic and exclusively look out for themselves.

"It might appear that you are favored for a period of time and usually that's because they need something from you," said Louise Carnachan, author of the book "Work Jerks: How to Cope with Difficult Bosses and Colleagues." "My counsel on that one is to look around and see what's happened to other people. Start to notice if there is always someone who is favored and then they drop to the bottom of the heap."

Narcissistic bosses struggle to accept criticism and often don't take responsibility when they make mistakes, according to Amy Cooper Hakim, an organizational psychologist and author of "Working with Difficult People." She suggests aligning yourself with such a boss to demonstrate that you are on their team.

"Let them know you're on their side. Say, 'I think we did a great job on this project.' They'll be more likely to support you and pick on someone they feel is not on their team," Cooper Hakim said. 

Narcissistic supervisors are more inclined to pick on or blame their own poor performance on others they suspect have problems with them, she added. 

But while minor narcissistic tendencies are one thing, Carnachan says if your boss is truly being abusive, it's time to escalate the issue to human resources — and start looking for another job. 

"If people are actually being abused by being demeaned or yelled at, you probably need some help from someone who has authority over that person," Carnachan said. "Nobody should be putting up with abuse. It erodes self-confidence and is bad news. Get what you can out of the experience and move on." 

"Don't be a punching bag"

Bad bosses can sometimes be heavy-handed when it comes to criticism. Make sure to save any abusive interaction that occurs in email correspondence, text or any other messaging app so that you have a record of it in case you decide to file a complaint in the future. 

For those working from home, remote work offers the opportunity for employees to distance themselves from demanding and overcontrolling bosses. Laptops and cells phones are easier to shake than a manager who is physically hovering.

"The great thing about telecommuting is you can kind of back away a little bit," Carnachan said. "It's hard when they're in your office or on the floor yelling at you. But when you are being blasted in a Zoom meeting or on Slack, you always have the opportunity to mute. Take care of yourself. Don't be a punching bag."

The micromanager

While micromanaging bosses are less toxic than narcissistic managers, their need to manage every detail can still be annoying and even disruptive.

"They are the people who didn't seem to learn how to become a manager and they feel like they have to actually put their hands on the work, and that is so frustrating," Carnachan said. 

In response to micromanaging bosses, Tracy Brower, a sociologist and author of "The Secrets to Happiness at Work," suggests that employees be assertive and express their own needs.

"Tell your boss you really appreciate autonomy, or you really value flexibility," Brower said. 

Another approach is to be very direct. Seek clarification on what exact aspects of your work your boss takes issue with. Brower suggests saying, "If this is style issue, is it possible for me do it my way?"

And don't let your fear of appearing needy get in the way. 

"It's important to ask for what you need. People are so afraid of appearing incompetent that they don't ask for clarification or they don't want to get on boss's bad side, so they just acquiesce," Cooper Hakim said. 

With any kind of difficult boss, one way to improve interactions is to perform brilliantly, according Brower. "Do really good work that is beyond reproach," she said. 

A little flattery doesn't hurt

Your relationship with your boss is an important one that warrants your time and investment. 

"It is a critical relationship at work. It's not only pleasant to have a boss you get along with and respect, but it also affects how productive and creative you are," said Amy Gallo, author of "Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People)."

Think about what motivates your boss and try to align yourself with their goals. 

For example, if they themselves care about looking good to their own boss, try to elevate their work or contribute to it in a way that earns them recognition.  

If they're concerned with their own ego, flattery can help, Gallo said. 

"No one wants to do it, but sometimes calming their ego can help a lot it in terms of improving the relationship," she said. 

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Incompetent boss or just stressed?

A boss who appears to be incompetent may not necessarily be ill-intentioned or malicious, either. Like other workers during COVID-19, more managers have been burdened with sick family members and juggling additional responsibilities, like child care, leading them to have short fuses in the workplace. They could also be struggling to handle the return to the physical workplace after years of working from home. 

If a boss goes bad suddenly — without a history of mismanagement — the predicament could be temporary. 

"The COVID thing was an enormous challenge," said psychologist and executive coach Marilyn Puder-York. "They could be a good guy who is under enormous stress, and maybe they miscommunicated because they're under pressure to adjust to the new reality and they weren't as wise as they could have been."

Her advice? "Give them the benefit of the doubt. Don't jump into assuming that they will be difficult going forward. They may be a good guy under stress and it may revert to what life used to be like."

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