Raising the profile for how Coaching can add value: Doing more with typical coaching issues: a “Difficult Boss” by Sue Young

I would like to continue sharing my experience of very typical Coaching issues: ‘Managing a difficult Boss‘.  I have selected this particular issue because 9 out of 10 times this is the way the matter is initially raised.

How might this be addressed through Coaching? In my approach I share how I see Coaching moving towards having a wider impact than just on the immediate individual Client.


  • In Part 1, I start with a typical case – that also was part of a ‘peer coaching’ process - Managing a difficult boss. This is a difficult issue to raise, let alone discuss, but when a peer coaching community context starts to support its importance it becomes less of a ‘personal’ issue and something that is possibly a wider issue for the organisation.

  • In Part 2, I refer to some current research into this important, and widespread issue, and how coaching can potentially add value to this issue

  • In Part 3, I then give some practical examples of how I have experienced both 1-2-1 and peer coaching groups can help people progress such a typical workplace issue of “managing a difficult boss”

1. A recent Case Example:

Building confidence to raising the issue:  It was the third meeting of this particular Peer Coaching Group that I was working with. An individual, eventually felt enough confidence in the group to disclose an issue with their Boss. They said they had explored and tested a number of approaches and been through some considerable personal stress as a result. They were resigned to biding their time until the end of the financial year, then seriously setting about finding themselves a new job.

As a senior manager this person protected their team as much as possible from this Boss’s negative impact. The Boss was a dominating presence and did not pay individuals any personal attention or listen to them. Two of the team were now on long term sick leave as a direct result of the pressures and stress caused by this boss’s behaviour and constant undermining interference.

Attempts to manage the Boss: This client was a highly experienced and capable manager, with a good track record in leading teams to achieve good results. They had particular strengths in managing a high performing team with a naturally collaborative leadership style. Their boss turned out to be highly controlling in style and treated the client like a helpless incapable child. When the client confronted the boss about this behaviour, the boss modified their tone but nothing substantially changed. For example, there were major longer term strategic issues, some of which my client would normally have expected to be leading on. The boss just ignored all their comments and suggestions. They were left in the dark, and certainly not involved.

The Group identified with the issues: The group began to explore with the client the possibilities around escalating the issue upwards, informally to start with. Simply discussing options it became increasingly evident that the overall culture was very negative, and more so the next level up. This was endorsed by somebody else in the group, who knew this part of the organisation very well.

Managing the Big Issue with the Big Question:   How much effort should this client continue to invest in trying to resolve the immediate situation with their boss, having reported testing different constructive approaches without achieving sustainable shifts in their boss’s attitude and behaviour?  It may be time to take fundamental stock of their options:

  • Do they persevere; is there something fundamental missing in what they’re doing?

  • Or is it better to accept that the situation is what it is, you’ve reasonably done all you can to make progress, and maybe it’s time to cut losses and invest attention and energy into seeking to make a move?

As the client explored and recounted their situation, I made a verbal observation of how weary, weighed down, and lacking in energy they were coming across. On receiving this feedback it was like I’d pressed a release valve. They affirmed emphatically how completely drained they were feeling by the whole situation. They are a naturally enthusiastic and positive Team Leader, always seeking out fresh thinking and different approaches to problem solving, always drawing attention to opportunities, and the controlling climate being set by their boss was not allowing the ‘space’ for their preferred leadership approach.

This reminded me of other situations I had encountered in my 1-2-1 coaching practice. Individuals stuck in this kind of situation over a longer period of time feel progressively undermined and lose their self-confidence - it can be very personally eroding - this self-doubt and lack of personal motivation can perpetuate a vicious downward cycle, without some external support and validation.

2. What can current Research offer to inform Coaching about the impact of line managers?

  • According to CIPD research (2014) about 65% of employees say they are satisfied or very satisfied with their line manager. Well, what follows is that just over a third, or 1 in 3 people feel some level of dissatisfaction with their line manager [1].

  • The CIPD research report goes on to report “employee views on line manager behaviours ( % of employees who say their line manager ‘always’ or ‘usually’ displays these behaviours)”, from a list of 15 behaviours. The highest rated were ‘commited to organisation’ at 70%, ‘treats me fairly’ at 69%, then ‘supportive if I have a problem’ at 65%. Lowest rated were ‘coaches me’ at 29%, ‘discusses training and development needs’ at 35%, then ‘gives feedback on performance’ at 44% [2].

  • Research from Great Place to Work Institute (2014) shows that 62% of employees do not think their Line Manager shows sufficient interest in them as people. Two thirds do not think they get sufficient appreciation for what they do, and 70% do not plan to stay with their employer for a long period of time [3].

  • According to the 2015 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study a third of the UK workforce is likely to leave their current employer within the next 2 years due to their poor relationship with their Line Manager [4].

So what is missing? What are managers doing or not doing to build engagement, performance, job and satisfaction?   And how can Coaching make its contribution to this?

Great Place to Work’s research shows that a great deal of what Coaching is about is in their recommended approach. They refer to this as ‘trust’ – which is the outcome of the right kinds of behaviour that actively build empowerment and engagement.

They identified a number of key behaviours that actively build trust and effective working relationships [5] 

  • providing appropriate resources so that employees can do their jobs properly;

  • allowing people to get on with their jobs without constantly looking over their shoulders;

  • involving employees in decisions that act them and giving them a voice in the business;

  • being honest and ethical in what they do;

  • treating everyone fairly with no favouritism;

  • treating people as individuals;

  • keeping promises or commitments;

  • actions matching their words;

  • recognising achievements; and

  • supporting employees, particularly at difficult times in their lives.

Additional research, both from my own experience (see my earlier blog ‘Helping Middle Managers Step into their True Organisational Leadership Role - November 2015 )  and distilled from the above broader research sources, shows Line Manager behaviours that have a particular negative impact 

  • Micro-management

  • Absence of direction setting, and engagement in contributing to the longer term direction

  • Absence - their priorities and attention are elsewhere

  • Lack of demonstrated interest in me and what I can contribute

  • Directly undermining behaviours that lead to
    o Loss of direction,
    o Loss of self belief and
    o Eventual drain of self confidence, even in the most capable people.

At extremes this can become dominating, bullying behaviour. My recent case, for example, includes elements of all of these.

What this wider research tells me is:
 @@Coaching needs to be more assertive about the expertise it brings to organisations.@@

The stats repeatedly tell us as coaches to consider that, if one third of line managers are poorly regarded by their reports, surely the probability is that approximately one in three of our clients may hold similar ‘blindspots’, or have acquired some bad habits.

So, we need to be wary of taking things literally as presented by our clients, and open up the conversation to explore how they may be contributing to the difficult situation. Otherwise we are at risk of colluding, and not helping our clients to explore and think differently at a deeper level.

We also have to take into account that it is only comparatively recently that line managers’ handling of their people has come under such detailed scrutiny. The traditional route to success has been, and is still in many organisations, simple Task achievement, never mind the people.

So, Coaching represents a bigger organisational (and social) trend to seek to engage people more and enable them be more self-directing. Both of these are essential in an increasingly complex, competitive and inter-dependent world. Also, the skills of coaching have a great deal to bring as part of the range of leadership behaviours brought by Line Managers

3.      So what in practice, are the kinds of approach that can be taken to manage a difficult boss?

Contracting is central to all forms of Coaching engagement. And whether in one to one, and/or Peer Coaching support, reaching connected people – such as a difficult boss may involve careful consideration. There are many ways that the principles involved in Coaching can be introduced in contexts beyond  a straight forward 1-2-1 contract.

In a peer coaching group, particular added value comes from sharing with and hearing different perspectives from peers. In a peer coaching group people are from different parts of the organisation, so they are sufficiently separate to feel more inclined to personally disclose, as there are fewer organisational and political issues leading to potential conflict of interests. The role of the group Coach / Facilitator is to hold the ‘space’, mainly making interventions and observations in the spirit of helping the group participants recognise and work more explicitly with the process and creating the conditions to help the group maximise the individual and collective learning experience. In my experience it can extend with 1-2-1s, where individuals can more freely explore deeper personal questions and dilemmas.

In coaching conversations, both peer groups and 1-2-1s, my clients have found the following approaches to be particularly helpful in managing difficult relationships with their boss.

1. As independent leaders themselves, getting themselves in a ‘leadership mindset’ in relation to their boss, as opposed to a ‘victim’ or ‘blamer’ mindset. Your client can see themselves as coaching them!

2. Self affirmation work, particularly if the relationship has been personally undermining over a longer period: help your Client re-connect to their achievements, strengths, values and overall sense of direction.

3. Clients opening up to want to understand where their Managers are really coming from – this requires your client to step back and get out of a defensive mindset. It may not be a one hit / one meeting approach but needs to be built progressively

4. Understand the bigger organisational strategic picture and direction – (relates closely to 3): initiate those inquiring conversations, with the aim of understanding more about how they see the priorities. This kind of bigger perspective may help your client better understand the true pressures their Line Manager is under

5. Understand their Line Manager’s personal style and motivation: What are their strengths and limitations? - building perspectives and strategies around these perspectives can often be part of coaching conversations

6. How is your client’s Line Manager seen by key Others - 360 instruments and the resulting data, increasingly used by organisations, can be very helpful to bring these wider perspectives, more difficult messages, and greater objectivity into coaching conversations.

7. Acknowledge and release any negative  emotional responses in a safe environment. This needs to be an explicit part of the contracting process. This release of feelings can help people move on to be in a more open and constructive problem-solving mode.

8. From your client’s assessment of the above they can arrange a feedback session with their Line Manager. This conversation needs to be discussed, and prepared, by both your Client and their Line Manager.


The following are examples of cue questions that both your Client and their Line Manager need to consider and be prepared to share their answers as part of their conversation.

1. Your Client’s

  • What are the top 2-3 things you most value about how your Line Manager works with you?

  • What are 2 - 3 things they do you have occasional difficulty with?

  • What changes would you like to see in their approach / behaviour that would help you deliver more successful outcomes in your role?

Get your client to do this on themselves first, i.e. self evaluation

2. Your Line Manager’s perspectives

  • What are the top 2-3 things you think your Line Manager values about you?

  • What are 2 - 3 things they have occasional difficulty with you?

  • What changes do you see you could make in your approach / behaviour that would help your Line Manager?

This approach requires both parties to put themselves in the Other’s shoes. Also, by giving advanced notice, and transparency around the agenda, both can have time to reflect and evolve their thinking. Having to do this in the moment, when unpractised, can trigger surprise, defensiveness, and the conversation can easily and quickly go off the rails.

Many of my clients have successfully moved to a more productive and functional working relationship with their Line Managers as a result of using one or more of the above approaches.

In conclusion:          

All of this has implications for us as coaches. I’d like to hear others’ experiences of coaching people with a “difficult boss” issue

  1. So what is our role as coaches in helping our clients on the “difficult boss” issue? Is one of our roles to share this kind of ‘best practice’ perspective around line management from the wider field, as part of our coaching process?

  2. How can we best be helping our clients evaluate themselves as Line Mangers?

  3. While being compassionate to our clients, how can we avoid collusion, particularly where a bad situation has got into one of entrenched positions?


[1] CIPD Employee Outlook survey, Autumn 2014
[2] CIPD Employee Outlook survey, Summer 2014
[3] http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/line-managers-roles-are-key-to-a-great-workplace/
[4] http://www.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2015/02/20/one-in-five-line-managers-ineffective-according-to-employees.aspx
[5] Personnel Today article May 2015 http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/line-managers-roles-are-key-to-a-great-workplace