How to Deal With an Unpredictable Boss

Perhaps this sounds familiar. First thing in the morning, your boss is upbeat and friendly. A few hours later, they arrive at your desk and loudly lash out at you over a minor matter, right in front of your colleagues. They’re all smiles during the afternoon team meeting, that is, until their mood careens wildly. Suddenly, they’re making unreasonable demands, contradicting themselves, and doling out blame. Later, you find out they picked a late night Twitter fight with one of your organization’s key partners.

It’s tough to work for an unpredictable boss. But, not necessarily impossible. If you’re committed to your employer’s mission or if you don’t want to walk away from an otherwise satisfying job, you can persevere. It takes both practical and emotional preparation to be resilient in the face of your manager’s mood swings.

Here are ways to deal with an unpredictable boss.

Don’t take it personally

Even if your boss is yelling in your face, odds are that their emotional outburst isn’t about you. Bosses are real people burdened by all of life’s little and large pressures, like heartbreak, sleep deprivation, financial worries, illness, depression, and family drama. While it’s not fair for them to take their stress out on you, you can rise above their mood through patience and compassion.

Stay calm. Try to listen to what they’re saying and disregard their overly emotional delivery. Once they’ve cooled off, ask to talk in private. Let them know that while you really want to discuss the situation, you feel like you can’t properly understand and act on their feedback when they’re shouting (or crying, condescending, or however else they’re behaving badly). It may not work the first time, so be prepared to kindly persist.

Manage up and around

Managing up to your boss can help you deal with their shifting moods. When you manage up, you are proactive about engaging your boss toward a more productive, collaborative working relationship. Give them the right information, at the right level of detail, right when they need it. During conversations, be ready to contribute practical solutions, instead of burdening your boss with yet another problem they have to solve.

Managing up may not be enough if your boss is a thoroughly unpredictable mess. Worst case scenario, you might need to manage around them. If your unpredictable boss has become a liability for your team, band together and give each other support. You might also seek out the guidance of human resources or another manager, ideally one your boss trusts.

Minimize triggers

Now, avoidance isn’t necessarily a sustainable long-term plan. But, if you’ve noticed your boss is triggered by something predictable, trivial, and easily avoidable, you could put in an effort to keep them calm. If they’re grouchy right before lunch, don’t request meetings with them at that time. If prepping for board meetings makes them anxious, put a note on your calendar so you remember to avoid bringing up other problems while they’re already on edge.

Some bosses are triggered by situations far beyond your influence. They may act unpredictability when they feel threatened or to distract others from their own failings. They might be bluster to hide that they don’t posses as much skill, knowledge, and experience as the people they manage. Or, they may simply be unpredictable to keep others from realizing how intractably incompetent they are. If they’re unfit and unqualified to lead, you’ll need a different strategy.

Keep a journal

If your boss is unstable or unreliable, you need to protect yourself. Keep a journal of your conversations, agreements, and disagreements. Whenever possible, get your boss to put promises in writing. Note who else overheard the conversations so you can later ask them verify your version if necessary. Support your narrative with copies of related emails, memos, and other documentation. Should you ever need to escalate the issue to HR, you now have a record of that shows the pattern of your boss’ unpredictable behavior.

Don’t use your journal to trash talk or complain about your boss. Be objective and factual. Include what you said and how you reacted. Review your journal entries for ways your behavior may be making matters worse or missed opportunities for diffusing tense situations.

Stay focused on your goals

Don’t let your boss’ deplorable tantrums keep you from achieving your professional goals. Write down your values, boundaries, and goals so you never lose track of what really matters. Assess whether you can stay true to your values and achieve your goals while working for your unpredictable boss. You never know. You might be able to outlast them.

Even if you believe you can be successful at your job despite your emotionally unruly boss, keep your resume up to date. When your boss is hopelessly unpredictable, you won’t get much warning before they become so volatile that you’ll know it’s time to go.

There are plenty of other ways to deal with an unpredictable boss. Share your tips in the comments. Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, writer, and speaker based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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jacqueline farmer

I have been in job situations where it is difficult to deal with unpredictable bosses. How do you react if your boss is screaming, yelling in your face? Situations like this I feel anxious, nervous and question ????? No matter how hard I work or do the required duties it appears to never be enough. Yelling and screaming literally takes my breathe away. How do you recover from that shock that comes out of nowhere? What happened to respect? Humility??????? Is there really an ideal workplace???

Lauren Girardin

To be frank, that boss doesn’t sound like someone you want to keep working for. If you have a human resources person or department, you should talk to them.

Lauren Girardin

To be frank, that boss doesn’t sound like someone you want to keep working for. Definitely follow one of the pieces of advice above, and keep a journal of the tense interactions. If you have a human resources person or department, you should talk to them as well. If human resources doesn’t offer you a realistic solution to your aggressive boss, it might be time to transfer departments or look for another job.