You clench your fists and make an all-too-happy smile, attempting to mask your fear as you approach your boss. It’s only a quick question, you think, just a brief follow-up about last week’s meeting. But, deep down, you know the truth. Client lead or workplace emergency, you’ve left your boss’s office feeling dismissed and angry many times.
What is an unapproachable boss?
If this situation is all too familiar to you, chances are, you have an unapproachable boss. Unapproachable bosses come in all shapes and forms. They can be the too-busy-for-you workaholic, can’t-respond no-show or you-don't-know-what-you're-doing know-it-all. Basically, unapproachable bosses have the obvious in common: They're difficult people, and you aren’t able to approach them. Either you don’t feel comfortable going to them or logistically aren’t capable of reaching them (i.e. they’re always on vacation or taking a flex day).
Consequently, walking on eggshells, preparing for a dismissive response or wondering if they’ll be in today can leave you feeling stressed and miserable at a job you otherwise enjoy. Before you consider turning in your resignation letter, here are some tips on how to deal with your unapproachable boss — and keeping your emotions from getting the better of you.
How to handle an unapproachable boss
Turn to emotion-focused or problem-focused coping.
Emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping are two main types of coping methods we use to deal with stress. We use emotion-focused coping to decrease our distress. While we turn to problem-focused coping when we know we can change the stressful situation and take steps in advance to prevent it from happening.
According to the study "The impact of work overload and coping mechanisms on different dimensions of stress among university teachers, emotion-focused coping is best used when we can’t do anything about the stressful situation, while problem-focused coping is great for stressful situations that we can change.
Which coping strategy can you use?
To determine which coping strategy to use with your boss, decide if the stressor — your unapproachable boss’ behavior — is “changeable.”
In other words, could your boss be unaware of their behavior and how it affects you and other employees? If addressed, do you think your boss would modify their behavior? Or would they be open to problem-solving with you on ways to strengthen communication and expectations?
At the end of the day, you know your boss. From past experience and personality, you can determine if a straightforward heart-to-heart would work or do more harm than good. From there, you can determine which type of coping to use so you can get the most out of your job.
Use problem-focused coping.
If you know your boss would be receptive to hearing your feedback, use problem-focused coping, and set up a time to meet. The meeting won’t be effective if your boss (or you) put up defenses. Prevent this from happening by using “I” statements to avoid placing blame (e.g. “I feel stressed when I don’t receive a response from you on last-minute projects.”).
Use emotion-focused coping.
If the idea of having a one-on-one meeting with your boss is out of the question — her behavior is simply not going to change — use emotion-focused coping to accept and reframe your situation. What valuable lesson is your boss’s behavior teaching you? How can you use this lesson in your professional and personal life?
When unapproachable is abusive.
There’s a difference between a boss who routinely is out of the office and one who belittles and berates you. Know that some unapproachable bosses are abusive, and that under no circumstances should you have to tolerate emotional abuse. Create a paper trail, contact HR, leave your employer, and, if worst comes to worst, file a lawsuit.
Even if your unapproachable boss isn’t abusive and you still feel overly stressed at your job, you do not have to “suck it up” and stay. You don't need this kind of difficult person in your life. There are many rewarding jobs out there — where you don’t have to report to a difficult, unapproachable boss.