27 September 2023

Building positive relationships with challenging managers

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* Saranne Segal looks at ways to work with challenging managers and examines ways to do it constructively….

Building a positive relationship with a challenging manager holds significant importance in the workplace.

Such relationships can greatly influence one’s professional growth, job satisfaction, and overall work environment.

When employees establish a positive rapport with their managers, it can lead to enhanced communication, trust, and collaboration.

This, in turn, fosters a supportive and conducive atmosphere where ideas are shared, feedback is received constructively, and productivity thrives.

Furthermore, a strong relationship with a manager can open doors to opportunities, mentorship, and career advancement.

Recognising the benefits that stem from cultivating positive connections with challenging managers underscores the importance of investing in building and nurturing these relationships within the professional realm.

In this blog, we will delve into the strategies for building a positive relationship with a challenging manager.

Understanding the challenging manager

Identifying the Characteristics of a Challenging Manager:

Lack of empathy: A challenging manager may show a lack of understanding or concern for their employees’ feelings or needs.

Micromanagement: They excessively control and closely supervise their employees, often causing frustration and hindering autonomy.

Inconsistency: Their actions and decisions may vary, leading to confusion and uncertainty among the team.

Negativity: A challenging manager tends to have a pessimistic attitude and frequently focuses on problems rather than solutions.

Bullying: They may engage in aggressive or abusive behaviour towards their employees, creating a hostile work environment.

Exploring the Reasons Behind a Manager’s Challenging Behaviour:

Personal traits: Insecurity, fear, or an inflated ego can contribute to a manager’s challenging behaviour.

External factors: Organisational pressures, changes in leadership, or other external factors can influence their behaviour.

Recognising the Impact of a Difficult Manager on Personal Well-being and Work Performance:

Decreased productivity: A challenging manager can demotivate employees, leading to decreased efficiency and output.

Lower morale: Their negative behaviour can create a toxic atmosphere and lower the team’s overall morale.

Increased absenteeism: Employees may be more likely to take time off to avoid the challenging manager.

Higher turnover rates: The presence of a difficult manager can cause employees to seek employment elsewhere, resulting in higher turnover.

Responding to a Challenging Manager with Understanding:

Patience and empathy: Understanding the reasons behind the manager’s behaviour can help employees respond with greater patience and empathy.

Positive work environment: By fostering understanding, employees can work towards creating a more positive and supportive work environment.

Effective coping mechanisms: Being aware of the manager’s behaviour and its potential causes allows employees to develop strategies to cope better.

Overall work experience: Understanding and effectively dealing with a challenging manager can lead to a better work experience and personal well-being.

Developing self-awareness and emotional intelligence

Recognise the Importance of Self-Awareness: Take the time to reflect on your own thoughts, emotions, and reactions in the workplace.

Understand how you typically respond to difficult situations and identify any patterns or triggers that may contribute to the tension between you and your manager. By gaining this self-awareness, you can take control of your own behaviour and make conscious choices in how you interact with your manager.

Manage Your Emotions: When faced with a difficult situation or confrontation, try to stay calm and composed. Take a deep breath, step back, and assess the situation objectively.

Remember that your emotions can influence your behaviour and the outcome of the interaction.

Responding with anger or frustration may escalate the conflict, while responding with empathy and composure can help defuse tensions and foster a more positive atmosphere.

Develop Empathy and Understanding: Put yourself in your manager’s shoes and try to understand their perspective.

Consider the pressures they might be under, their workload, and any external factors that could be influencing their behaviour.

Developing empathy allows you to approach interactions with a more compassionate and understanding mindset, which can lead to better communication and a more productive working relationship.

Effective communication strategies

Clear and open communication: It is important to communicate in a way that the manager can understand your perspective and concerns. When communicating, ensure that you are being transparent, concise, and articulate.

Active listening skills: When communicating with the manager, make sure to give them your full attention and listen attentively to their response. Use non-verbal cues, such as nodding and maintaining eye contact, to show that you are listening actively.

Choosing the right time and approach: When scheduling a meeting with a challenging manager, make sure that it is at a time when they are not busy or distracted. Also, choose an approach that is appropriate for the manager’s communication style.

Adapting to Different Management Styles

Managers have different styles when it comes to managing people and tasks. Some are hands-on, while others are more hands-off. Some prefer a more structured approach, while others value flexibility.

Here are some strategies for effectively working with different management styles:

Autocratic style: If your manager has an autocratic style, they make decisions without seeking input from others. To work effectively with this type of manager, be prepared to follow directions and complete tasks without much input.

Provide updates on progress and ask for feedback when necessary.

Democratic style: A democratic manager values input from employees and encourages participation in decision-making. To work effectively with this type of manager, be proactive in providing suggestions and ideas.

Take the initiative to get involved in projects and share your expertise.

Laissez-faire style: A laissez-faire manager is hands-off and gives employees a lot of autonomy. To work effectively with this type of manager, be self-motivated and take responsibility for your work.

Seek guidance and feedback, when necessary, but also demonstrate your ability to work independently.

Building trust and credibility

Trust is the foundation of any successful manager-employee relationship. It’s a two-way street that requires both parties to contribute and build over time. Without trust, there’s a lack of openness, honesty, and cooperation that can hinder productivity and ultimately lead to job dissatisfaction.

Here are some tips for building trust and credibility with a challenging manager:

Demonstrating reliability, competence, and professionalism: That means meeting deadlines, being responsive to requests, taking initiative, and delivering quality work consistently. By demonstrating your reliability, competence, and professionalism, you’re showing your manager that they can trust you to handle responsibilities effectively and efficiently.

Cultivating a positive reputation and track record: Your actions and behaviours speak louder than words. By cultivating a positive reputation and track record, you’re demonstrating that you’re a valuable asset to the team and the organisation.

That means being dependable, accountable, and taking ownership of your work. Your manager will notice when you consistently deliver on your promises and exceed expectations, which can lead to increased trust and respect.

Seeking support and feedback

Seeking guidance and support from mentors or colleagues:

Mentors can provide advice on how to deal with a challenging manager based on their own experiences. Colleagues who have faced similar challenges can offer insights and strategies for navigating the work environment.

Engage in open and honest conversations with mentors and colleagues to gain different perspectives and solutions.

Building a network of allies within the organisation:

Allies can offer emotional support and understanding during challenging times.

They can also assist in providing feedback and suggestions for resolving conflicts with the challenging manager.

Cultivate relationships with allies through regular communication and mutual assistance.

Handling feedback from a challenging manager constructively:

Accept negative feedback gracefully and view it as an opportunity for growth.

Recognise that constructive criticism can help improve skills and performance.

Request specific feedback on areas for improvement and develop an action plan to address the feedback.

Approach disagreements with the manager with a problem-solving mindset and strive for a resolution that meets both parties’ needs.

If necessary, involve HR or other appropriate channels to mediate and resolve conflicts professionally.


Developing a positive relationship with a challenging manager is essential for professional success and a harmonious work environment.

By focusing on open communication, building trust, and by seeking common ground, employees can navigate the difficulties of a manager constantly criticising and transforming the relationship into a more constructive one.

It is important to take proactive steps, such as seeking feedback, addressing concerns, and finding opportunities to collaborate. Additionally, approaching the situation with a growth mindset allows individuals to learn from the experience and develop resilience, and acquire valuable skills for future challenges.

Ultimately, investing in a positive relationship with a challenging manager can lead to personal growth, improved job satisfaction, and increased opportunities for career advancement.

* Saranne Segal is a lawyer with 25 years experience who has responded many times to people conflicting others. She says her passion for solving disputes to help people move forward, is even stronger than ever.

This article first appeared in the HR Daily

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