On the Clock

When You and Your Boss Are Oil and Water

A personality clash with a higher-up doesn’t mean you can’t get along.

Laura Killick is a self-professed people person. She celebrates her team’s successes and wouldn’t bat an eyelash at someone taking a sick day when they need some TLC. But her former boss was the total opposite: a just-the-facts kind of person who thought nothing of demanding a team member to forgo a funeral in order to finish a work project. “We were completely different personalities, and it was really horrible,” says Killick, who now owns an eponymous career-coaching firm. 

At some point in your career path, if you haven’t dealt with this already, you’re going to report to a boss whose personality and communication style aren’t only different from yours, but completely opposite. He’s a schmoozer who shoots from the hip, while you’re all about the numbers and getting right down to business. She’s quiet, logical, and organized, and you’re an emotive rambler. Whatever the combination, it’s a match made in hell—an unfortunate pairing likely to make communication difficult and your job even more stressful.

You can’t change your personality or your boss’s. But you can adapt to make the relationship work better. 

And if you’re like most people, you’ll probably regard your boss’s proclivities as the root of the problem—what’s known among social psychologists as a “fundamental attribution error.” This “error” causes us to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore any situational factors. 

“When we see behavior that’s opposite from ours, we tend to judge it negatively,” says Mary Abbajay, president of Careerstone Group, an organizational and leadership development firm, and author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss.

But, as any good worker knows, part of your job is managing up and learning to work with different types of people. Below, some tips on how to get your work done and come to a détente with your boss. 

Adapt or die.

OK, it isn’t that dire. But it is a cruel fact of life that you can’t change your personality and you aren’t going to change your boss’s, regardless whether you’re a junior-level staffer or a C-suite executive. But you can tweak the way you do things to be more copacetic. “Everyone has to adapt to their boss,” says Abbajay. She once worked with an interior designer who complained about the way her boss constantly peppered her with questions. It made her feel she wasn’t trusted. In reality, that wasn’t the case—she and her boss just had totally different personalities. The boss was a detail-oriented introvert who needed numbers and specifications, while the interior designer was a fast-paced extrovert. The key, then, is pinpointing what your boss needs. “It’s not that I’m a free spirit and he’s so uptight,” says Kathy Robinson, founder of TurningPoint, a career coaching firm in Boston. “It’s that he has specific needs in terms of how he processes information and feedback.”

Speak up—carefully.

If you’ve tried to adapt and things still haven’t improved, you may be able to address the mismatch. “In some cases, you can gently advocate for yourself,” Robinson says. But how you phrase your comments is crucial; explaining your style differences in a nonjudgmental way is tricky and must be done using nonconfrontational language. Don’t be surprised if your boss is taken aback by the conversation—but it could help clear the air and spark more matter-of-fact interactions. 

Analyze the culture.

In some cases, the issue might go beyond how you and your boss mix and be a pervasive, organization-wide issue. Look around the company and observe whether people like your boss are the ones being promoted or among the top brass. If so, that probably says something about the company’s culture—and, ultimately, whether you’re willing and able to adapt to it. Says Abbajay: “If this is the type of personality that gets ahead, you have to decide if it’s the right place for you.”

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