What to do when you and your new boss clash

December 07, 2012 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

I once knew a woman, a marketing director, who loved her job and thought she was doing her best work ever. She saw the long-term strategy she was working on as a two-year project at minimum, and was looking forward to its implementation.

Then she got a new boss, brought in from another business area where he had been championed as an aggressive cost-cutter. He didn’t understand what she was doing and killed the project. Three months later the woman quit; she told me her situation was “deadly.”

This new boss scenario is very common, so common that one of the first things I ask when someone tells me they are unhappy in their job is, “Was there a change in the management guard? Did you get a new boss?”

Sometimes, you get lucky and the new boss is actually better. But judging from the recent experiences of my clients, increasingly it appears this isn’t the case.

One of the top complaints about new management is that the new boss is a “money guy” and doesn’t respect professional content. As one vice-president of human resources put it, “They bring in someone new who clamps down on everything as an unnecessary expense to wring the last dollar out of their bottom line. The result is the work suffers.”

One observer of management culture who has been through four bosses in the past three years described the new management cycle aptly: “Every time you get a new boss it is ‘smash / build,’ which gets repeated 12 months later.”

Difficult behaviour on the part of the manager is not always about the bottom line. Sometimes the newcomer is nervous, inexperienced, or wants to make his or her mark. That’s particularly true today with less-skilled supervisors being bumped into management roles, and performance bars that demand immediate results.

New bosses may also see staff members as threats because of their own insecurities. For example, one woman, a communications specialist, had developed a great working relationship with her previous boss. That manager recognized she knew little about her subordinate’s area of expertise and respected the staffer as an expert; the manager provided autonomy, and deferred to her staffer’s judgment.

But the communications specialist’s new boss – an executive who had sold himself to hiring managers as a “thought leader” – changed all that. He was a micromanager, quibbling over minor technical details, questioning how the woman used her time, and sending work back laden with angry comments written in red ink. “I felt like I was in Grade Three with a particularly nasty teacher,” recalled the woman, who lasted a year before being fired. She believes her dismissal came because competition for “who was top chef got too heated. My boss was threatened by my reputation.”

Star employees are often hardest hit when a new boss arrives. They can bring out the worst in supervisors, who may see them as divas competing for the limelight. As one person once told me, “Sometimes if you want career longevity, better to be just a bit second-rate. You don’t threaten anyone.”

It is easy to slam senior managers for being insecure or profit-obsessed at the expense of work quality. But sometimes the new boss isn’t objectively bad, just a poor personality match for the employee. (That was partly the case for the autonomy-loving communications specialist; her replacement gets on well with the manager, appreciates his hands-on approach and doesn’t feel slighted when she is second-guessed.)

Staffers may also need to cut the new manager a bit of slack. New bosses feel that everyone is watching and evaluating them, and they are under huge performance pressures.

New managers also need to figure out the politics of the workplace and, most important, its rhythms and its individual players (Who will make the boss look good? Who will deliver? Who can be trusted?). All of this can make the newbie either tentative in approach or overly harsh, in attempting to establish credibility.

One introverted client of mine, for example, was discombobulated by her ambitious and extroverted new manager. But with time, and several awkward one-on-ones, they came to understand each other. Rather than seeing him as overbearing, she came to perceive him as friendly and interested. And he realized that she was reflective rather than taciturn and withdrawn.

But what if you have tried everything to adjust to a difficult new boss – including tolerance, understanding and heart-to-hearts – and had no success? For some people, it may mean looking for a new position. Either come to terms with the boss you’ve inherited, or find a new one to your liking.

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