On Tuesday night I had dinner with a friend’s son, the purpose of which was to help him decide whether he wanted to pursue another career (he’s been involved in IT sales support since he graduated college 4 years ago). As he described the current situation at his workplace I noticed how much focus he was placing on the negative attributes of his boss. “She’s a micromanager.” “She sets unreasonable deadlines.” “Her schedule is so busy that it’s almost impossible to meet with her.” “It’s hard to get her undivided attention.” “She’s such a perfectionist.” “She definitely plays favorites.” Upon further questioning it turned out that he likes the work that he does, he just doesn’t like the environment in which he’s doing it, colored primarily by this difficult boss (he gets along well with his other co-workers).

A couple of weeks earlier I had met with a woman who had many of the same complaints about her client, a senior official at the Defense Department. She, too, was wondering how to escape from a situation that had felt increasingly toxic for the past six months.

A very common trait exhibited by many of my clients is a kind of passivity in how they view themselves relative to their jobs within an organization.  A large number of employees still operate in a culture imposed by 19th century management. based on the idea that labor is merely a cog in the production wheel, and therefore the primary responsibility is to go where, and do what, you’re told. In 21st century America there is certainly more value placed on innovation, creativity and leadership coming from below, but there’s also still some residual reluctance to rock the boat among a lot of workers.

Rocking the boat doesn’t mean being a wide-eyed radical seeking to overthrow capitalism. It simply amounts to taking a broader view of the institution and its processes / products and imagining better ways of doing them STARTING WITH A CHANGE IN YOUR OWN WORKFLOWS AND RESPONSIBILITIES. Unless you are very well-regarded within your organization it is unlikely that suggestions on how to do things better in other departments are going to go down very well (although there are ways of unobtrusively pushing reforms through the influence you may have on others that can eventually accrue to your benefit).

If you are in a difficult or unhappy situation with your boss, look first not to his or her need to change (it ain’t gonna happen, at least not right away). Rather, ask yourself what it is that is driving the unpleasant behavior you’re encountering, and determine if there are ways you can address the boss’ insecurities. Sometimes you will need to be a particularly astute investigator, because the antipathy may rise out of a personality characteristic rather than anything you are literally doing “wrong.”: for example, a boss may not like your relatively carefree, somewhat joking manner of comporting yourself at work, being interpreted as illustrative of “not caring enough about the work” (This jaundiced viewpoint is particularly common to bosses whose mission feels to them exceptionally urgent). More frequently, difficult bosses suffer from some form of anxiety or fear that causes them to try to be on top of everything, controlling and micromanaging for fear that if they don’t, disaster will strike. The best advice I can give to someone working for that kind of boss is to pay very close attention to what appear to be the emotional / psychological drivers of the person, and work hard to relieve the anxiety they feel vis-a-vis your work. That might mean more frequent updates or conversations, or the initiation of a new kind of report that clearly indicates you are on top of things.

So. before looking for the exit, give a new attitude, and a new set of behaviors, a fair shot and see if the investment will pay off in an improved relationship with your boss. In my experience, it often will.

Now it is true that there are situations in which two people so rub each other the wrong way that it will be virtually impossible for them to have a productive working relationship. But such situations are the exception, rather than the rule. More common is a situation in which there is some kind of clash between boss and subordinate