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How To Deal With An Ambivalent Boss 


by Vicky Oliver, author of “Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots

Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, you’ve had to cope with an ambivalent boss or manager somewhere along the way — someone who could be friendly and supportive one day, and then demeaning and cruel the next. Just like “frenemies” who are fickle in their expression of friendship, ambivalent bosses provoke distinct consequences for employee performance.

It’s unnerving not to know whether to brace yourself or extend yourself in your dealings with an ambivalent boss. In fact, research shows that ambivalent relationships are more harmful to our psyche, and even our physical health, than those we can easily categorize as negative. After all, with undeniably cruel people, you know what to expect and can try to avoid them entirely. But when there’s no predictability in how the boss will behave, the stress becomes nerve-wracking.

As a result, performance often suffers because workers walk on eggshells. Trust evaporates and disengagement permeates.

When you’re in a position in which you must deal with an ambivalent boss, here are some ways to cope:

1. Develop a thick skin.

Sure, we all love praise and appreciate constructive feedback, but if a comment from a superior is nothing more than mean-spirited, it can be difficult to preserve your confidence and know how to proceed. If you generally hear positive feedback from others on your team or higher up the hierarchy, try not to focus exclusively on the negativity coming at random times from your ambivalent superior.

2. Look for underlying causes.

The ambiguous behavior often can be attributed to your manager’s own lack of confidence. When the behavior manifests as hurtful instead of helpful, it may come from a perception of professional competition. While the biting remark or the stinging email may take you aback, try to get a sense of the manager’s state of mind and what might really be bothering him.

3. Accept the good/dismiss the bad.

The conflicting signals that the ambivalent boss sends are difficult to decipher. Being cheered on in one interaction, then cut down in the next, only intensifies the confusion. Try not to agonize over the Jekyll and Hyde behavior. Learn to accept the support when it’s offered without longing for it. Chances are you are not a perfect person either every day. Remember that to err is human, to forgive, divine.

4. Take the high road.

Consider that your manager may have his own stressors at work or in his private life that express themselves in fickle behavior. Lower your own expectations of what you can gain from the relationship and, for your own well-being, keep at a healthy distance. Try to set up strong boundaries between you and this person. Don’t work over the weekends. Don’t come in early to the office. If you work at a company that has hybrid schedules, try to come in on days when your boss won’t be there.

5. Confront the behavior.

Before the stress of uncertainty reaches a breaking point, let your boss know that the on-again/off-again approval and support is taking its toll on your state of mind. Relay a recent example. Ask outright how you are supposed to interpret the mixed messages. Share your hope that the relationship remains positive, but advocate that, because of the dedication with which you approach your work and the contribution you make to company goals, you deserve constructive feedback from your superior (and hope that he is open to hearing some as well!).

Like having a frenemy, dealing with an ambivalent boss can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield. Train yourself to carve an alternate path where you can feel confident with each step you take.


Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-bestselling author of five books, including “Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots” and “301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions“. She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 901 appearances in broadcast, print and online outlets.