Some therapists help people with relationship issues by focusing on attachment styles. Attachment patterns can also give us practical insights into how to deal with a difficult boss. After all, like it or not, you are in a relationship with him or her.
The four attachment styles are secure, chaotic, avoidant, and anxious. The boss you don’t have chronic trouble with is “secure.” This is a person who generally balances concern for self with attention to your professional needs and growth.
The chaotically-attached person has a disorganized way of relating to you. This is the boss with an open-door policy who keeps the door shut at least half the time. You feel appreciated in the morning and afraid you’re about to be fired in the afternoon. The good news is that people like this tend to blow up relationships, so depending on the corporate culture, this person may be headed out the door soon. As a first step, keep excellent records of your interactions and projects. Trevor Crow, a therapist and a Harvard MBA who has examined how attachment styles surface in the workplace, also recommends:
Have a good relationship with the whole power structure and, if necessary, be sure to copy a higher-up person on all communications. Alert HR to erratic behavior and stay calm. Handling a chaotic person is like dealing with a child. Be clear and never too assertive in presenting your ideas. Unfortunately, the best way to get what you want done is to let the chaotic boss believe he’s come up with the good ideas.
An avoidant person relies far too much on himself. If you fail to come through on a project, for example, his focus would be on how you made him look bad. You will probably be ignored—that’s the best-case situation—or fired so that he won’t have to look at you again. With the avoidantly-attached person, Crow notes:
An avoidant boss wants to see results so be conscientious and timely about your work. You make him or her feel safe by showing up with good work and on time. If there is a problem and there is emotion involved, don’t push for immediate resolution. He or she needs time to process.
An anxiously-attached boss can be described in two words: Steve Jobs. As Walter Isaacson described him in his biography, the Apple founder felt his anxiety so strongly that it diminished his ability to feel what other people were feeling. A boss like this can seem outrageously demanding to others—even high performers. If you work for someone like this, be sure you get third-party input on your work products, or you may find your self-esteem slipping away. Crow also suggests:
An anxious boss gets reactive to emotional issues. When handling a reactive boss, validate her experience and calmly let her know what you need to tell her. Expect some fireworks; let your boss process. You may need to speak to her again once she’s calmed down.
“Difficult” is a concept that lies on a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, there is the difficult boss who is not malevolent and will respond better when you figure her out and adjust your behavior accordingly. On the other end of the spectrum is the bully boss. That will be the subject of a whole different blog post!
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