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Flighty Boss? 4 Tips to Make the Work Relationship A Success

Portrait of tired businessman touching his head

You can’t seem to win with your flighty boss. They tell you one thing, but then chastise you for not doing it the way they requested. You feel like you’re following their instructions, only to find out the instructions later change without your knowledge. You sense you’re expected to read their mind, but then that might change, too! Working with a fickle boss can be exceedingly frustrating, and generate a lot of anxiety. The good news is that a relationship with a flighty boss can be navigated from haphazard to controlled, leading you to feel productive and even appreciated. Here’s how to turn your anxiety into action, and take control.

Top 4 Ways to Make Things Work with a Flighty Boss

  1. Be Kind. One way to change your mindset – and help you get out of your own feelings of frustration and annoyance – is to cultivate compassion and empathy for your boss. Instead of the negative explanations that you are likely assigning their behavior, try instead to consider an empathetic approach. Give them the benefit of the doubt. For example, flighty people often express feelings of anxiety and stress, and many times don’t realize the impact their lack of focus can have on others. Instead of chalking up this set of behaviors as selfish, try instead to think about what it feels like to be stressed, overworked, and distracted. In putting yourself in their shoes, you will increase your compassion for them. In turn, this re-focus will help you in communicating with an open, positive attitude, rather than acting out your irritation and frustration. Note that changing your mindset in this regard does not entail excusing their behavior – rather, by exuding a different perspective, you’ll be working with the boss rather than against him or her.
  2. You can’t change them. Chances are you wish that your boss could delegate more efficiently and effectively, and consequently, you feel frustrated. In fact, frustration – as an emotion – is the experience of disappointment and hurt that happens when an expectation is not met. Therefore, if you manage your expectations, your frustration will be lower, if not eliminated. In dealing with a flighty boss, it’s important to focus on the realities of the situation, rather than how you want it to be. To put it more plainly, focus on the choices you have, rather than the choices you wish you had. Chances are your frustration is a result of an unrealistic expectation of your boss. Changing your expectations to be more aligned with the realities of the situation will help you manage your frustration. Fantasizing about a better boss won’t help you get a better boss, whereas planning towards making the relationship better will likely forge the path toward more workable interchanges.
  1. Stay One Step Ahead on Communication. Use your predictive powers to anticipate that conversations and emails could be unclear, and strive to make communication on your end as transparent as possible. When your boss says something to you or asks you to do something, make sure to repeat back to them what it is that you heard them say. This will help twofold: First, it will help you clarify what is being assigned, and help you delineate what is needed. Second, a flighty boss can also be a distracted boss, and hearing back from you what you heard them say can help them clarify their thoughts too. In this way, you are helping both yourself and your boss.
  1. Take Initiative. Instead of waiting for a flighty boss to delegate a task, take control of the situation whenever you can, politely offering suggestions for ways to help. Not only does this foster more involvement for you, it shows your boss your willingness to take responsibility for your boss’s projects. Admittedly, taking initiative can be a tricky because some bosses are more involved in the work of their subordinates (read: micromanaging or dictating), so you’ll need to tailor your approach accordingly. In any case, taking initiative is a practice worth risk-taking in order to show your potential.

Trying different approaches to facilitate ease of communication with a difficult boss can take time. The main thing is to stick with your plan and not take their behavior personally. It’s easy to take any associated criticism to heart – however, separating out the boss’s difficult behavior from your own performance is crucial. At the same time, be aware that if your efforts to ease communication bear no fruit, you might be dealing with a manager who could feel abusive – in this case, you’ll need to reassess your work situation. Focusing on your behavior, and what you can control, is the best way to offset the powerlessness and anxiety that is generated, and put its energy into action. No matter what, recognize that managing difficult situations provides needed growth opportunities. Not only will you improve your ability to deal with difficult people, but due to your efforts, both you and your boss will benefit.

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

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