Dealing with really difficult bosses

Some bosses seem to be permanently ensconced at the high end of the “difficult to deal with” continuum. They don’t just have their moments – they’re frequently really difficult to deal with. Under pressure they’re intransigent, aggressive, and highly emotional. Think Donald Trump.

Bill Eddy, President of the High Conflict Institute, suggests that approximately 15% of the population display a “repeated pattern of aggressive behaviour that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it”. Eddy refers to these individuals as “high-conflict people” who have “high-conflict personalities”. He describes high-conflict people as having the following patterns of behaviour:

  1. Rigid and uncompromising, repeating failed strategies
  2. Difficulty accepting and healing loss
  3. Negative emotions dominate their thinking
  4. Inability to reflect on their own behaviour
  5. Difficulty empathising with others
  6. Preoccupied with blaming others
  7. Avoid any responsibility for the problem or the solution

Eddy suggests that high-conflict people are unaware of the negative, self-defeating effects of their behaviour and can’t see the connection between their own behaviour and their problems.

I’m not sure if Eddy’s 15% figure is right (it seems high to me) but what I am sure about is that at my conflict management workshops, I’m consistently being asked how to deal with “really difficult people who just won’t listen to feedback”.

So how do you deal with “really difficult” people in positions of power?

Because these people seem to lack self-awareness and the ability to empathise or listen, you can’t take the approach that I usually advocate when you’re dealing with the rest of the population, which involves a process of self-reflection, perspective taking and skilful engagement (see my earlier blogs on dealing with difficult people:;

These powerful “high-conflict” people genuinely believe that their view of the world is correct and that if there’s a problem, it’s someone else’s fault. They’re experts at playing the blame game, so trying to engage with them and change their thinking just generally doesn’t work. You have to take a different approach.

I set out below 10 tips to assist you in dealing with really difficult people – in particular, those who exercise power over you. In putting these suggestions together I’ve assumed that it’s safe for you to engage with the other person. If the situation is such that you don’t feel safe, you need to disengage and find an exit plan.

  1. Understand what you are dealing with

The starting point is to recognise that the other person isn’t “reasonable” and you won’t be able to communicate with them in a rationale and reasonable way. Their behaviour demonstrates that the issues that they may raise are not really the “issues”, rather the “issue” is them. Eddy suggests that when dealing with high-conflict people your initial goal is simply to engage with them in such a way that you contain their emotions so you can try and work with them effectively. The goal is not to convince them you are right.

  1. Keep your composure

Even though it’s difficult to stay calm when someone is blaming or otherwise behaving unreasonably, it’s really important to be able to manage your own emotions. Becoming good at staying calm under pressure requires a lot of practice (see my previous blog: but if you learn to breath, stay calm and not take things personally, it’s a great start.

  1. Adopt a “Strategic Appeasement” approach

In their book, Making Conflict Work, Peter Coleman and Robert Ferguson note that when you find yourself in a situation where you lack power and need to give yourself time to consider your options, adopting a “strategic appeasement” approach makes sense. Some of their suggested tactics include “placating your oppressor” and “cozying up to the bully”. In a similar vein, Eddy talks about using statements that demonstrate empathy, attention and respect.

I’ve had a number of personal experiences where it wasn’t initially obvious to me that I was dealing with a high-conflict boss. Foolishly I tried to push back and influence them with my brilliant arguments. This got me nowhere fast. It was only when I adopted a strategic appeasement approach that I began to be heard. Pushing back had simply exacerbated the tension and increased the conflict.

It’s important to demonstrate that you are listening to what the other person is saying and are concerned about the situation and the impact it’s having on them. Even if you disagree with what they are saying, the key is for them to feel respected and heard, so they have a sense you are working with them, not against them.

  1. Stay positive

As you grapple with the best way to deal with the situation, try and stay positive. Think about what small steps you can take to make the situation more tolerable. Think about the long-term benefits that might await you in the future if you can survive this temporary discomfort. Or think about what you can learn in terms of your own development from working with such a dysfunctional individual. I often say you can learn as much from your bad bosses as your good ones.

  1. Be clear about your goals and options

When you are dealing with a really difficult person who holds a position of power over you, you need to step back and reflect on your goals and what options are available to you in the particular situation. How committed to the organisation are you? Do you have alternative roles you can go to? What alliances do you have that might assist you? Can you tough it out? Can you reduce contact with the person? What support will you get from HR? What else can you do? Are there actions you can take that will make the situation tolerable, or do you need to extricate yourself from the situation quickly?

  1. Be BIFF when responding

In his book BIFF, Eddy provides a useful framework for responding to provocative correspondence from high-conflict people (the approach is also useful in face-to-face situations). He suggests responses need to be BIFF – Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm.

Brief – The idea of being brief is to avoid triggering the defensive blaming responses in the other person, and instead focus on problem-solving information. The fewer words you give them to react to, the better.

Informative – Being informative involves giving a short sentence or two of straight-forward, useful information on the subject being discussed. You’re trying to focus on objective information rather than opinion. The idea is to be as neutral and factual as possible so that you reduce the prospect of triggering what Eddy refers to as “blamespeak”.

Friendly – Being friendly can be tough when you are dealing with a really difficult person but Eddy highlights the value of keeping things on a positive, even keel. He suggests starting the conversation by saying things like: “Thanks for telling me your opinion on this subject” or “I appreciate your concerns on this. Please let me give you some information you may not have…”

Firm Eddy notes that while it’s important to be friendly, it’s equally important to be firm and set limits when responding to correspondence or statements. While this can be delicate, particularly when the person has more power than you do, you need to demonstrate that there are limits in terms of what you will talk about, when you will talk about it and what sort of behaviour you will tolerate.

  1. Appeal to their “core drivers” to gain co-operation

Sometimes you will need to try and shift the other person’s understanding and perception of the situation. This can be challenging, but Coleman and Ferguson note that a lower-power negotiator can alter a boss’s goals and objectives in conflict by tapping into the boss’s core drivers. For example, this might involve highlighting to a cost sensitive boss that the boss’s proposed solution is more costly than the boss thinks or that a different outcome would be even more valuable. The key is to try to understand where they are coming from in order to build co-operation.

It can also be useful to tap into their desire to look good and be seen as “team players”. By appealing to their need to be seen as delivering team or organisational outcomes, which makes them look good, you can often succeed in getting a powerful difficult person to listen to what you have to say and modify their approach.

  1. Minimise contact

Coleman and Ferguson note that it makes perfect sense to “elicit less scrutiny by disappearing or appearing to be in complete compliance with demands.” Reducing contact with the difficult person may, if feasible, be a very practical step to manage the situation. I can recall this was a standard practice among my colleagues when we had a particularly cantankerous CEO.

  1. Create alliances

By building networks through earning the respect of peers, direct reports and others, you can enhance your power and ability to influence, or at least survive, a difficult person.

Unfortunately, many difficult people only respond to power, so you may from time to time need to seek the assistance of strong allies who have power or influence over the difficult person. You can seek the intervention of powerful colleagues to assist you by drawing their attention to the business issues that are being put at risk by the difficult person’s behaviour.

I have a friend on a leadership team who is currently grappling with how to deal with a very difficult CEO. Having exhausted his arsenal of best-practice negotiation and influencing techniques, he’s now resorting to leveraging his relationship with the Chairman of the Board. His plan is to brief the Chairman on some of the risk to the business related to the CEO’s behaviour and seek guidance on “how might we move forward?” He is trying to appeal to the core drivers of the Chair (who wants a successful business) to assist manage an otherwise unmanageable CEO.

  1. Be conscious of your limits – your well-being is important

While it’s fine for me to say “stay positive”, you need to recognise when staying in the situation is putting your personal health and well-being at risk. Sometimes the impact of a really difficult boss is such that you just need to cut and run. Doing this is not a cop out; rather, it’s a practical and sensible course of action.

I’d be interested in hearing your own success (or failure) stories, so please feel free to leave a response. And if you like, we can have a chat.


Mark Rosenberg