Figuring Out the Female Boss: Two Key Steps

A bad boss can make the workplace miserable. And sometimes this person is a woman. Given how much time people spend in this office, life itself can become wretched. You start to feel angry, humiliated, anxious, and depressed. You tell your coworkers just how bad this supervisor is, how she treats you, how she makes you feel. She really is a “jerk,” you claim, “a b**ch” you all agree.  You consider doing something about it but take no steps. You hope that she stops acting this way and that everything can just get better on its own.

But of course she doesn’t stop. She keeps yelling at you, keeping you late, making you redo reports. She criticizes your work, and  criticizes you. You start to realize change is unlikely. You try to do everything you can do to avoid a blowout, but nothing works. Your job becomes a prison where each day is spent thinking about how much you hate your boss – feeling terrible and without any results.  Dreading each interaction…

There are two steps on the path forward. Both may seem difficult but are surprisingly simple:

1. Acknowledge 

Acknowledge what you might be bringing to the table and why your boss’ behavior bothers you so much. Because even if you have found solace in group gossip about your manager, chances are there are some reasons why you are so personally frustrated by this person. Does she remind you of someone else in life? Can you absolutely not tolerate criticism?  What is it about you that makes her seem so bad?  As intolerable as she seems, and as little as you want to do this, you may be surprised at what answers arise.

2. Empathize.

The complementary approach – one that can be incredibly hard to come to terms with – is to empathize with your boss. Why on earth would we suggest finding an empathic spot for this person when it’s quite literally the last thing you want to do? Because if you must find a way to get along, you’ll need to take the long view and try to understand why she acts in this particular way. In allowing yourself to empathize with your boss, you also give space for some of the negativity to fade away. In understanding her and yourself, a desire to learn and to grow can start to replace the bottled up disdain spilling into every part of your day.

We’ve consulted with a number of employees over the years who have had significant problems working for female bosses. Most were women, though some were also men. In all situations, we asked the workers to ask why they seemed to be so rattled by women in positions of authority. Why do they feel so minimized and humiliated when, for example, they were scolded or criticized? These are all issues that an employee brings to the table and must evaluate. Perhaps the same boss wouldn’t bother another colleague quite as much. We try to help people understand that it’s their responsibilities to look inward for answers to these questions.

At the same time, consulting employees often find themselves wondering whether the women who achieve high rank are in some way meaner or more difficult. And why they would act this way toward them when, as fellow women, they should presumably want to support one another. So we ask them to empathize and think about what is driving her boss to be so dismissive of her feelings. What does she know about her? What is the office like for her boss and what was her path to promotion?  What’s in this story might have caused her to behave so distastefully? Most importantly, we try to frame what internal struggles the boss might be dealing with that cause her behavior.

Perhaps a micromanaging boss is so incredibly afraid of losing control that she needs to discipline everyone around her to feel more secure. Maybe her whole life has spent trying to be “perfect” in order to please others and she takes these insecurities out on those around her. Perhaps a seemingly arrogant boss only flies off the handle when she herself feels exposed or humiliated. She is afraid the world might discover that her big job is just a mask covering her cripplingly low self-esteem, and she constantly fears discovery of what she feels is her fraudulent, inadequate self.

In trying to understand the boss’s underlying anxiety, an employee can interact in ways that help keep the supervisor’s fear at bay:

  • Find little ways to show the boss she’s in control if she needs to be
  • If the boss has fragile self-esteem, show her value by acknowledging her positives when opportunities arise
  • If a disorganized boss can’t finish anything and slows everyone else down, learn to interact with her in bite-sized tasks and complete them one at a time

The hardest part is acknowledging our own roles – and capabilities – in making the workplace more comfortable. In accepting the task of learning about ourselves and our bosses, we can do just that. People want to tell you about themselves and will do so all the time; they want to be heard. Just look and listen with the intent to understand. It works every time.

This guest post was authored by By Dr. Michelle Joy and Dr. Jody Foster

Dr. Michelle Joy and Dr. Jody Foster are the authors of The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work. For more information, please visit,







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Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.

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