A difficult relationship with your boss can make every aspect of your work more challenging. It's a tough situation, but it's not necessarily a hopeless one.
Yes, in cases of true ineptitude or incompatibility, it might be best to seek employment elsewhere. But in many others, learning to make the best of the predicament can be the smartest move. Whether your manager is inconsistent, authoritarian or simply doesn't mesh with your personality or work style, the characteristics that make him hard to work with are often the ones that can teach you the most.
Here are five valuable skills you can learn from having a difficult boss:
1. What not to do: Modeling yourself after someone you admire is useful, but there's nothing like a front-row seat on unproductive behavior to help you crystallize your own professional values and style.
Learning what not to do is especially helpful if you currently manage others or hope to do so in the future. Taking note of the effects of the behavior on staff can yield leadership lessons more memorable than any business school could provide.
2. Self-reliance: A manager who doesn't always provide you with adequate resources or direction can force you to become more resourceful and assertive. You may need to learn to gather the information or support you require from others or figure out how to move forward with a project when details are fuzzy.
Similarly, a boss who doesn't adequately recognize or appreciate your efforts can lead you to develop your own sense of the value of your contributions. The result can be a sturdier sense of satisfaction and confidence.
3. How to choose your battles: When working for a challenging boss, everyday conversations can seem like combat. From requesting feedback to defending a decision you made to explaining why you think a certain course of action is the right one, you know to expect a tense and difficult discussion.
View these interactions as learning opportunities -- when it's worth bringing up an issue, when to push back and when to let a matter drop. Being able to distinguish between a garden-variety difference of opinion and a significant concern can help you establish effective working relationships with colleagues.
4. Diplomacy: Some of the most professionally valuable interpersonal skills, such as working toward compromise and building consensus, can be learned only by dealing with difficult people. That's why a little incompatibility with your manager can be a good thing. In an ever-shifting work environment, the ability to communicate with those who see things differently than you is indispensable.
5. Team building: When your supervisor isn't as supportive as you'd like, it can motivate you to seek out and cultivate nurturing professional relationships with others. A mentor, for example, can be especially valuable for those who don't find their boss to be role-model material. The situation might also spur you to form closer relationships with colleagues who may be struggling with some of the same issues you do.
None of this is to suggest that a contentious relationship with your manager is an enviable state of affairs. It's all too easy to let a difficult boss discourage you, cause you to question the value of your work or serve as an excuse not to deliver your best. But by treating the situation as a growth opportunity rather than a hardship, you give yourself a chance to emerge from the experience stronger and better prepared to meet the next challenges your career brings your way.
When that happens, don't be surprised if your opinion of your former boss changes. Years from now, you might realize that a manager who seemed hypercritical or overly demanding was simply trying to bring out your best or force you out of your comfort zone.
That's why it's worthwhile to take a step back from your situation and ask yourself if there are things you can appreciate about your boss now. If so, you might be inspired to work toward a more productive professional relationship. And even if the answer is a resounding "No," you'll know it's not the end of the world.