What Do You Do When Your Boss Is Completely Unreasonable?

I’d just interviewed for a new HR job, and a friend asked how it went.

It was good,” I told her. “I really liked the hiring manager. He seems like a reasonable guy.”

You see, I rank “reasonableness” as a top leadership trait. An unreasonable boss makes work extremely challenging and in all the ways I don’t care to be challenged.

Everyone has blind spots, but …

Human beings tend to behave, well, like humans, and all of us have blind spots.

In the workplace, pet projects, pet employees, and strongly engrained world views can all provoke blind spots that can impede good decisions.

Still, when your basically reasonable manager’s blind spot gets in the way of good business, your chances of talking things out to a sensible solution are pretty good. These scenarios also provide an opportunity to flex your negotiation and persuasion muscles.

But I’m not talking about that today. No, today I’m talking about the wholly unreasonable boss with near zero self-insight. This is the boss, for example, who insists she’s open to input but whose behavior tells the lie to that claim a hundred times out of a hundred.

This manager has more than a few minor blind spots, and when a true meeting of the minds is required, he can only be relied on to retreat into the parallel universe inhabited by him and him alone, wherein up is down, right is wrong, and left is right.

Each time you’re subjected to another of these nonsensical exchanges during which absolutely nothing is accomplished, you wonder how you can possibly continue to work for this person while maintaining your sanity and peace of mind.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Disengage

That’s right; when your boss acts more like an incredibly privileged, willful, petulant child than a reasonable adult, you must disengage.

And by disengaging I don’t mean checking out or even tuning out. I mean quit taking your boss’s bad behavior personally.

Your boss’ character flaws have nothing to do with you. He may be acting like a child, but he’s not your child to correct, guide, or mentor.

Forget about trying to show him the error of his ways by pointing out flawed thinking, missing information, or inaccurate information he may be relying on to make decisions. He doesn’t want your feedback, and continuing to engage with him as though that weren’t true is unproductive and making you nuts to boot.

2. Pick your battles (then go for your boss’ weak spot)

Everything isn’t worth fighting for, but some things certainly are.

Is your unreasonable boss narcissistic? Probably. Unduly concerned with looking good? I’m guessing yes.

Use those weaknesses to get work done by pointing out how a current process/procedure you’d like to improve is making the boss look bad. (Caution: Be sure not to criticize the boss and keep your emotional distance during this conversation. Focus on your goal and don’t slip into unproductive engagement.)

3. Set and enforce boundaries

Yes, we’re back to boundaries again, because unreasonable bosses constantly test boundaries, and if you don’t learn to manage yours, you’ll be miserable.

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When your unreasonable boss is insisting that you:

  • Partake in unethical behavior;
  • Partake in illegal behavior;
  • Work all hours of the day and night for her convenience and to the detriment of others who rely and depend on you;
  • Donate your finances to causes you don’t believe in; or,
  • Relinquish your right to say “no” and “stop.”

Still, you’ll have to be ruthless in enforcing your boundaries in a professional and kind but firm manner.

Getting back to the child analogy (because sadly, it works), approach your boss as you would a poorly behaving child. However, not your poorly behaving child, with whom you can speak frankly and discipline if necessary.

Instead, think of the misbehaving child of that neighbor you aren’t close to and don’t particularly like. When that child picks the heads off your prized roses, you don’t get overly emotional. You just smile and in a firm, steady, but friendly voice say, “Don’t do that please.

Remember, enforcing boundaries is not about winning someone over — you can’t influence someone who refuses to be influenced. Also know that your boss may get good and mad that you won’t do as he would like. Too bad.

4. Learn to treasure silence

A few months ago, I wrote an article about the value of keeping your mouth shut, and this is particularly important when dealing with an unreasonable boss who says crazy stuff. Idiocy often deserves no response.

(You should make it look good, however, by nodding and throwing in a sympathetic sounding, “Uh huh” and “You don’t say?” on occasion — before excusing yourself to go to the ladies/men’s room.)

5. If necessary, file a complaint

If your boss’ attempts to enforce his unreasonable expectations have become abusive and your conciliatory gestures haven’t yielded fruit, it may be time to think about filing a formal complaint with HR or your company’s grievance committee.

Start the process hoping for the best but expecting the worst, because we all know how ineffective HR can be in resolving workplace conduct involving management. (Don’t bother protesting. I love the profession as much as the next guy, but there’s still mucho room for improvement, OK?)

I confess that unreasonable folks are my Achilles heel, because I just can’t think straight when too much foolishness is in the air. That said, the workplace is full of foolishness, and we have to learn how to deal with it, especially if the crazy making originates with the boss.

However, I don’t believe any of this advice is sustainable in the long-term. These are more short-term coping strategies.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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