Article by Michelle Joy and Jody Foster

A boss can make the workplace miserable. Given how much time people spend in the office, life itself can become wretched. You start to feel angry, humiliated, anxious, and depressed. You tell your coworkers just how bad this supervisor is, how they treat you, how they make you feel. Your boss really is a jerk, you claim. A schmuck, you all agree. You consider doing something about it, but take no steps. You hope that the boss stops acting this way and that everything will just get better on its own.

But of course the boss doesn’t stop. They keep yelling at you. They keep you late, making you redo reports. They criticize your work. They criticize you. You start to realize that change is unlikely. You try to do everything you can do to avoid a blowout, but nothing works. Your job becomes a prison where each day is spent thinking about how much you hate your boss. You feel terrible, dreading each interaction.

There are two steps on the path forward. Both may seem difficult, but are surprisingly simple:

1. Acknowledge What You Might Be Bringing to the Table and Why Your Boss’s Behavior Bothers You so Much

Even if you have found solace in group gossip about your manager, there are probably some reasons why you are so personally frustrated by this person. Do they remind you of someone else in life? Can you absolutely not tolerate criticism? What is it about you that makes your boss seem so bad? As intolerable as they seem, and as little as you want to ask these questions, you may be surprised by the answers.

2. The Complementary Approach — One That Can Be Incredibly Hard to Come to Terms With — Is to Empathize With Your Boss

Why on earth would we suggest finding an empathetic spot for this person when that is quite literally the last thing you want to do? Because if you must find a way to get along, you’ll need to take the long view. Try to understand why your boss acts in this particular way. In allowing yourself to empathize with your boss, you also create space for some of the negativity to fade away. In understanding your boss and yourself, you can start to replace the bottled up disdain with a desire to learn and grow.

We’ve consulted with a number of employees over the years who have had significant problems with their bosses. In all situations, we’ve asked the workers to investigate why they felt so rattled by their superiors. Why did they feel so minimized and humiliated when, for example, they were scolded or criticized? Perhaps the same boss wouldn’t bother another colleague quite as much. We try to help people understand that it is their responsibility to look inward for answers to some of these questions.

We also ask people to think about what might be driving their boss to be so dismissive of their feelings. What does the employee know about their boss? What is the office like for the boss? What was their path to promotion? What in this story might have caused the behave so distastefully? Most importantly, we try to frame the internal struggles that might be causing the boss’s distasteful behavior.

Perhaps a micromanaging boss is so incredibly afraid of losing control that they need to discipline everyone in the office to feel more secure. Maybe they spent their whole life trying to be perfect in order to please others, so they take their insecurities out on those working under them. Perhaps a seemingly arrogant boss only flies off the handle when they feel exposed or humiliated. They are afraid everyone might discover that the big job is just a mask covering cripplingly low self-esteem.

In trying to understand the boss’s underlying anxiety, an employee can begin to act in ways that keep the supervisor’s fear at bay. The employee can find little ways to show the boss they are in control, if necessary. For example, if the boss has fragile self-esteem, the employee can acknowledge their positive qualities when opportunities arise. If a disorganized boss can’t finish anything and slows everyone else down, the employee can interact with them in bite-sized tasks and complete them one at a time.

The hardest part is acknowledging our own roles — and capabilities — in making the workplace more comfortable. In accepting the task of learning about ourselves and our bosses, we can do just that. People want to tell you about themselves and will do so all the time; they want to be heard. Just look and listen with the intent to understand. It works every time.

A version of this article originally appeared on

Dr. Michelle Joy and Dr. Jody Foster are the authors of The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work. For more information, please visit,

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