WORKPLACE / NOV. 04, 2014
version 2, draft 2

How to Deal with a Moody Boss

What does a moody boss have in common with a toddler? Pretty much everything. From happy to outraged to sad within minutes; tantrums that seem designed more to get attention than to accomplish anything and prone to episodes where logic seems to have run away from home. Unlike a toddler, however, your boss wields a lot of power over your life. And you can’t put him in a timeout. So how do you handle a moody boss who has control over your paycheck? Here are some tips.

The best place to start is at the beginning: figuring out what’s really going on.

Does his diaper need changing?

OK, it’s highly unlikely that your boss wet his britches. But there could be another physical cause. Does he have migraines? Allergies? 

Did he miss his nap?

A lot of people are so stressed all the time that they don’t have the bandwidth for additional stress. If sales are down, a big quarterly report is due, a merger is in the works, etc., his moodiness is likely caused by stress. 

Is he teething?

Did your boss just get a promotion? Or, worse, did he just get additional responsibilities without a promotion? New developmental stages are tough. If your boss is trying to master new job responsibilities, he’s probably feeling worried, stressed, and insecure. 

Did he lose his blankie?

Personal problems can throw anybody for a loop. Divorce, illness, death, even a child leaving for college…all of those are enough to turn a once stable boss into Jekyll and Hyde. You can’t fix your boss’s personal problems, but you can try to smooth the way at work.

Does he just not like you?

It’s important to ask yourself if you could be the cause of the moodiness, especially if it seems to be directed primarily at you. Are you coming in late? Are you missing deadlines? Making a lot of mistakes?

How you handle your moody boss depends on what your detective work turned up.

  • If it’s a physical problem, learn to recognize the signs, and do anything you can to increase his comfort level, whether that’s speaking in a low voice, bringing him coffee, keeping his tissue box refilled, etc.
  • If it’s stress, try to ease it by taking on some of his responsibilities, especially the ones you know he hates. If he’s always in a horrible mood on Monday mornings because he despises the weekly meetings, for instance, ask him if you can go in his place. If he hates answering customer emails, offer to do that. Identify his pain points, and make him feel better.
  • If your boss is moody because he’s stretching to learn a new position or to take on new responsibilities, see if you can take on some of the old stuff so that he can concentrate on learning the new. If there are routine tasks that are done weekly, monthly, etc., volunteer to do them yourself instead. Eliminating some nuisances (especially busy work) can go a long way toward eliminating moodiness.
  • Personal problems are harder to deal with. You’re not his mommy or his therapist. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good listener, and you don’t need a psychology degree to show empathy. Sometimes just showing that you’re aware of what’s going on in his personal life and understand that it might be affecting his mood could be all it takes to get him over that day’s bumps in the road.
  • If you think you could be the cause of some of the moodiness, be brave enough to come out and ask if there are any problems with your performance, and be ready to fix them if there are.

It would be nice if all moody bosses fell into such concrete categories, but they don’t. Sometimes there is no discernible reason for a boss’s moodiness. Sometimes you may know exactly what’s going on but be unable to do anything about it because it’s completely out of your control. In those situations, your best option is damage control:

Duck and cover

Sometimes the best strategy is to just stay out of the way. Whether that means holing up in your office or just not drawing attention to yourself, keep a low profile until it blows over.

Don’t take it personally

If the moodiness is directed at everyone in general rather than just at you, don’t take it personally. You didn’t cause it, and you can’t fix it. Trying to do so will just be frustrating for everybody.

Document everything

You don’t want to get into a “he said, she said” situation with a moody boss. Document everything he tells you, and document what you do in response. It would also be a good idea to document who else was there, so that they can provide backup if you ever need it.

Try to escape

In the worst cases, you may be left with no options other than to put up with it or change jobs. Think carefully before you do that; there’s no guarantee that your boss in a new job won’t be even moodier. But if you really can’t take it anymore, recognize and accept that the only way out may be out.

Working with a moody boss is no fun at all. While you would probably never choose to put yourself in that situation, if you find yourself there anyway, try these strategies to keep your job safe and to make your days more bearable.



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