A promotion means learning from a new supervisor, but he seems so miserable and overworked that you’d prefer not to ask for his help. Here’s what to do.

Share story

Q: I recently accepted a promotion, not really because of my own desire but because management wanted me to take on a new role. The new job is fine, but the head of the department I now work for seems completely miserable. He basically does the job of three people, because of changes upper management has forced on him.

Dealing with him has been horrible. I’m still learning this job and have questions and need help doing things that only he knows how to do. He responds to me with such exasperation that I think twice before I approach him. He doesn’t seem mad at me; he just seems to hate his job and his managers. He doesn’t want to be there but evidently has nowhere else to go.

I don’t deserve to be treated this way. And he is the one who wanted me to accept this promotion. How do I deal with this man? — Anonymous

A: If your description is accurate, it’s no wonder he’s unhappy: Your company sounds rather poorly managed. I don’t know why he has “nowhere else to go,” but I wonder whether you do, and what you think your opportunities at this place will be.

But let’s say you really want to hold on to this position you didn’t seek. You’re already doing the most important thing one can do when sorting out how to deal with an unpleasant boss or colleague: You’ve made the effort to figure out why this person is such a drag.

If it’s correct that he has basically been put in an impossible position, then have some sympathy, and then consider two courses of action.

The minimalist strategy: Do what you’re doing, but even more so. Be extremely selective about what you must extract from this boss to do your job, timing your requests according to his apparent misery level. Strive for a future in which you interact with him as little as possible.

The more ambitious strategy: See if there is a way you can take on responsibilities that would benefit you in the long run and make this manager’s life less “miserable” right now. Propose this option in a way that suggests both empathy and engagement: “I know you’ve been asked to do a lot, and since I’m interested in X maybe I could help you by handling that?”

But given the evidence of higher management’s performance at your company, I would add that even if you pursue the more ambitious strategy, do so with an eye toward future options elsewhere.

A boss stuck in the (negative) past

Q: My boss has been wonderful toward me in too many ways to mention. I have only one issue that I find challenging about her.

Before I was hired, she was in a different department in which she experienced very negative treatment from her boss. She then moved to the department we’re now in. It’s been two years, but she still seems bitter about that prior experience and often expresses to me in very strong and angry language how much she hates the institution and certain people in it.

I respond, on one hand, by trying to let her know I hear her, but also by pointing out the positive things that are now happening in our company. I really want her dumping of rage to stop, but I don’t feel comfortable telling her so.

She really is excellent in all other ways and continually lets me know how good my work is and how glad she is to have me on her team. Plus, I really like the work itself. What to do? — Anonymous

A: You can stop any behavior that involves signaling that you “hear her.” You’re not her therapist or even her friend. You’re her employee. She may have perfectly good reasons for needing to vent about whatever went down in her past. But there is no reason she needs to vent to an employee — especially when her venting casts a general pall over the workday.

When her conversation goes in this direction, immediately change the subject to the most pressing work topic you can think of. Since these outbursts are frequent, you can prepare yourself in advance with conversation-changing issues, the more deadline oriented the better.

Ideally she’ll pick up on your disengagement and stick to job-related topics. But if that doesn’t work, consider having a more direct conversation, maybe in the context of an annual review, or some similar formal sit-down arranged on your initiative.

Find a tamped-down way of expressing exactly what you’re saying here: You truly appreciate this boss, and want to help her by being a good employee. “You seem well positioned now, so the focus on the past negativity in another department is confusing to me. I want to focus on how I can do the best work I can for you.”

She has every right to her own issues, but you can’t solve them. You can only signal that the help you have to offer involves the future, not the past.