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Five science-backed ways to avoid conflict with your boss

Imagine being 30% happier or more productive, just because you learned how to manage your boss.

Five science-backed ways to avoid conflict with your boss
[Source photo: Pict Rider/Getty Images]

Managers account for around 30% of the variability in employees’ engagement and performance. In other words, the degree to which you love or hate your job, and are good or bad at it, is largely dependent on the boss you have.

This is why picking the right boss is probably as important as picking the right job, career, or romantic partner. Some of the attributes that make bosses good or bad are purely dependent on their personality, which explains up to 50% of the variability in leadership styles, behaviors, and success. Others, however, are a reflection of employee-manager fit or compatibility, which is why it is not improbable for two employees to have rather different views of the same boss.

Luckily, there is always something you can do to improve your relationship with your boss and avoid conflict. Here are five science-backed recommendations.

LEARN TO PREDICT THEM

The Norwegians have a saying: There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong choice of clothing. So long as you can predict something, you should be able to take the necessary precautions to deal with it.

In the same vein, most of the managers we would describe as “bad bosses” still display a consistent pattern of behaviors—including their bad or undesirable habits—that you can prepare for and preempt. Disliking bad news, overreacting to certain comments or triggers, or the inability to deal with negative feedback are examples of what irritating bosses do, just like strong rain, winds, and low temperatures are examples of a bad climate region. Learn to decode your boss, and most of the problems they cause you will go away, even if the reason is that you have managed to lower your expectations.

ADJUST YOUR BEHAVIOR

No matter how smart and interesting you think you are, don’t assume that others agree with you. No matter how great your boss thinks you are, there’s a strong chance that they still think they are better than you. And even if they don’t, they may feel they need to pretend they do.

Of the many ways you may consider relating to your boss, there is no more important way than to accommodate your behavior to their preference. This includes trivial things, like going with their preferences and suggestions, even if they ask you for yours. And substantial things like ensuring you don’t do anything that significantly annoys them, or say things they clearly dislike.

Adjusting your behavior to your boss is the natural act that follows from learning to predict them. Today, we call it emotional intelligence; before that, it was simply called social skills or people skills.

MAKE YOURSELF USEFUL TO THEM

Most managers will appreciate people who make them look good, especially with their own managers. Think about what your boss is trying to achieve, and focus your efforts on helping them achieve it. Sadly, most people are too focused on themselves and their own careers to focus on advancing their manager’s, which, ironically, is the best way to advance their own career.

PRACTICE SELF-COACHING

The most successful people understand that they are a work in progress. This means learning new behaviors and unlearning bad ones. It means learning to go against your nature, controlling, or mitigating the negative tendencies that may impair your reputation. Improving your self-awareness, so you can understand how people see you and what they think of you, is key to improving your professional self and upgrading your reputation.

The same people who complain about their boss are often unaware of how they are seen by others, including their boss, which stops them from getting better. If you spend less time complaining about your manager, and more time understanding why people may complain about you, you will become more rewarding to deal with, which will even help you get along with your boss.

AVOID WORKING FOR A TOXIC MANAGER

Sometimes there’s just no fix to improving your relationship with your boss, because your boss truly is the problem. The only fix is to get away as fast as you can. This is often true when you work for a narcissistic, psychopathic, or Machiavellian boss, as these personality traits are associated with destructive and parasitic leadership.

Instead of developing immunity to such parasitic individuals, it is healthier to move to less contaminated or toxic environments. Even lighter versions of bad bosses can be difficult to manage. As Amy Gallo notes in a brilliant new book, these include passive aggressive bosses, who pretend to agree with you while they backstab you; perfectionist bosses, who are obsessional and micromanage you; and the shadow figure boss, who is basically absent.

Although these suggestions will require focus and hard work, they will pay off. Imagine being 30% happier or more productive, just because you learned how to manage your boss. Perhaps more importantly, it is worth exhausting these options before deciding to quit, not least when economic times worsen, and there is no certainty that switching from one boss to another will remove all your pains. Things could be better with your next boss, but they could also get worse.

Any relationship requires both parties to make an effort to improve things, but even if one of the two attempts this, both sides will benefit.

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