How to Deal With Bosses That Put You on the Defensive

by Tara Duggan
Avoid burnout and develop a plan to deal with a boss who puts you on the defensive.

Avoid burnout and develop a plan to deal with a boss who puts you on the defensive.

You’ve probably had to deal with a manager who didn’t like your work. A boss that puts you on the defensive the minute you enter a room is usually cause for alarm. Inconsistent, petty, irrational and unprofessional authority figures put you in a difficult position. Don’t put up with petty bullying or backstabbing. There are ways of handling this delicate relationship that produce short-term relief and long-term benefits. You can deal with frustration in a constructive, productive manner with a little effort.


If you’ve observed odd behavior from your boss in the past, you may be cautious about any future interactions. Patterns of strange behavior deserve a plan of action. For example, if you can anticipate repercussions after a client or executive meeting, prepare a rebuttal to anticipated concerns. If your boss labels meetings as "an emergency” or “urgent,” this may be a clue that he intends a rampage. Get a plan of action in place to avert disaster. On the other hand, if a crisis doesn’t manifest, express a positive attitude to reinforce your boss’s appropriate behavior. It could be that she doesn’t realize the impact she has on her subordinates.


Even if your boss expresses bullying behavior, you still need to maintain professional behavior. Blaming others or retaliating won’t help your case. Follow your instincts and maintain a calm demeanor. Don’t let your emotions ruin your hard work. If your business has a human resources department, ask the human resources specialist to advise you on how to handle a conflict such as this. Try not to take it personally. Your boss may be under significant pressure from his boss, so try to empathize. Or, your superior may be bullying all of his subordinates, so consider commiserating with your peers on the situation before assuming it’s just you.


If your boss constantly attacks you, document his abusive behavior consistently. Make a log of when and where he confronts you and puts you on the defensive. See if there is a pattern to his behavior and develop a series of strategies for each type of attack, describing what you will say and do in different circumstances. For example, if he tells you the quality of your work is poor, you might show him emails from colleagues and clients that prove differently. You may also tell him you are building a case to escalate to higher levels of management, but be careful with this approach unless you have support from colleagues and your HR department if you have one at your company.

Get Support

Dealing with an overly critical boss can make you feel challenged and threatened. You aren’t the first. Try not to take criticism personally. Take a deep breathe to maintain your composure. Ask for help from peers, other superiors and even subordinates.

About the Author

Tara Duggan is a Project Management Professional (PMP) specializing in knowledge management and instructional design. For over 25 years she has developed quality training materials for a variety of products and services supporting such companies as Digital Equipment Corporation, Compaq and HP. Her freelance work is published on various websites.

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