How to Deal With Your Boss

Whether she’s a beloved mentor or the bane of your existence, here are some ways to handle one of your most important relationships.

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Don’t call attention to your age—or hers

If you have a younger boss, you may be tempted to assert your greater experience and wisdom. However frustrated you may feel, you should avoid saying things like “Back in my day…” or “I thought that at your age.” “It won’t help, it smacks of insecurity, and it can even sound offensive,” says Anna Post, an etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute. If your boss is older, it’s not a great idea to focus on that, either.

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Make the most of a younger superior

Show respect for a younger boss’s skills, such as proficiency with new technology.  “If she’s using technology like Twitter or email, look at it as a positive: She’s more available to you,” says Elizabeth Holloway, PhD., co-author of Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power. And if you feel confused by new programs or practices, ask for help.

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Don’t outdress her

Be mindful of not dressing too seductively or expensively, as this may make your boss feel threatened, says Holloway. By dressing with your peer group, you will show respect, Post says.

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Pick up on any cues she’s giving about your dress

If your superior is feeling uncomfortable with your appearance, she might show it by making subtle or sarcastic comments about your clothing or makeup. “This is a common situation among women working with a woman boss,” says Linnda Durré, PhD., an Orlando-based psychotherapist and the author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace. “It really has to do with power and how it’s manifested, whether that be through clothing, money, beauty, or height.” If your boss is on the short side, consider wearing  lower heels or flats.

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Don’t leapfrog

Always try to be a team player, says Post. If you’re having problems, go directly to your boss, not to the person above her, to avoid looking as if you’re hiding something or working against her. If your boss is a part of the problem, go to human resources first and then, if necessary, to the higher-ups.

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Don’t go to the higher-ups on your own

If you go over your boss’s head to resolve an issue, bring peer reinforcements. When you’re alone, it’s your word against your boss’s, and your boss’s superior has probably never seen her negative side, says Holloway. If you work collectively to convey your concerns, your case will be more convincing.

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Keep gifts to a simple card or a group effort

Gifting up can look like sucking up, says Post, so don’t do it even if she gives you something. Each office is different, and you should ask your office manager or HR if there’s a company policy, Durré says. If you really want to acknowledge her, consider giving a card, or join with your peers to give something safe or business-related, such as a fruit basket, a travel bag, or a nice pen, says Post. Never give alcohol unless you’re sure it’s accepted at the office.

Don’t treat your female boss like a mother

“With women bosses, you need to let them know that you respect them and want them as your mentor,” says Durré. Thank her for her help and offer congratulations for all her success, as she may take you up the ladder with her. Always maintain a strictly professional relationship, Durré says. Keep personal problems to yourself: You don’t want her to feel that she has to mother you.

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Choose your battles

“In a perfect world, you could openly discuss your grievances with your boss and get them resolved,” says Post. But sometimes doing so can make the problems worse. Only when the issues are preventing you from doing your job should you bring them to her attention. Be simple and direct, and offer concrete examples, says Holloway. Speak respectfully and onlyfor yourself to avoid putting her on the defensive.

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Highlight her positive traits

If you’re stuck with a difficult boss, reinforce her positive behavior by bringing up things she does that you like. Say things such as “Thanks for letting me know” or “I appreciate your help.” Pay attention to how you work best with your superior—is she at her best in the morning? over email?—and adjust your interactions accordingly.

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Skip office gossip

“When an office has a problematic boss, people spend a lot of time and energy at the water cooler, talking about the latest bad thing,” says Holloway. It may be tempting to vent to your colleagues, but focusing on the negatives encourages dysfunction and creates poor morale.

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First Published March 9, 2011

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