How to deal with an insecure boss: survival guide

Jul 13, 2022

4 mins

How to deal with an insecure boss: survival guide
Lauren Dunmore

Content specialist passionate about storytelling

There are few things more draining and stress-inducing than having a terrible manager. A bad boss is more than just a pain to be around. Their actions can affect your quality of life and even take a toll on your mental health. Research shows strong links between the “opportunity to experience satisfaction in the workplace” and our ability to experience satisfaction in life, according to Mental Health America, a community-based non-profit organization. In other words, don’t underestimate the impact that your manager’s poor leadership skills can have on you.

One of the most difficult kinds of managers to deal with is an insecure one. They tend to project their feelings of inadequacy onto their team members, who can end up feeling stressed, dejected, and that they aren’t trusted. To help you understand the psyche of an insecure boss and give you the tools to cope, we spoke with Christian Adames, a counseling psychology doctoral candidate at Columbia University, who has published research focusing on career development and mental health.

Is your manager insecure?

The first step towards improving your situation involves identifying whether your boss is insecure or not. Many factors contribute to poor leadership, but there are some signs that insecurity might be the root cause of any behavior. An insecure boss will often flaunt their accomplishments in a way that makes others feel lesser, according to Adames. If your manager likes to humblebrag, that’s probably not a good sign.

They also have trouble admitting to any weaknesses and can have unrealistically high standards for the team. They tend to be micromanagers who hand out passive-aggressive put-downs and show a general lack of trust in their team. Adames says they set unrealistically high standards for themselves too. “In the same way that someone with body-image issues might criticize others on their size, an insecure manager will find fault in your work likely because they are unhappy with theirs,” he says. Any criticism from an insecure boss probably doesn’t come from a place of malice, and should not be taken personally, he adds. “The problem is coming from them, not you.”

How to handle an insecure boss

It can be tempting to try to ‘fix’ your manager in the hopes that it will make your life easier. Adames’s advice? Don’t do it. It’s not your job to help your boss,” he says. “Leave that to a therapist.” You don’t have to just stand by and watch them make everyone miserable, however. Here are a few things Adames says you can do to make your life easier:

Get support outside of work

Concentrating on your work under these circumstances is tough, but you don’t have to go through this alone. Adames recommends that you confide in your family, your friends, or a therapist. It can be helpful sometimes just to vent – and they can provide an outside perspective on the issue too. Keep your mind off the issue by making plans to do things after work and spending time with people you love. If you have a particularly rough day, call your parents or a friend, and tell them about what happened. If the situation becomes severe enough to take a toll on your mental health, consider talking to a therapist about it.

Avoid criticizing your boss at work or to your colleagues at any time. “I had a patient gossip about an insecure boss during a happy hour, and the colleague ended up telling the manager what was said. It had serious implications for my patient and made her toxic work situation even worse,” says Adames. To avoid this happening, play it safe and don’t share too much with your colleagues.

Be transparent

It’s not uncommon for an insecure boss to question your productivity and even your work ethic. So be transparent: use a spreadsheet to keep track of your tasks and accomplishments, give them regular updates on how things are going. Being micromanaged is frustrating and having to take these extra steps might be annoying, but it will help to show your boss that you can be trusted. Creating a dialogue like this might help them to feel less worried and more willing to grant you a little more space.

Acknowledge their strengths

It can’t be said enough, so we’ll say it again: it’s not your job to fix or diagnose your boss. But, it can be helpful to not focus on the negatives. “Figure out what their strengths are and how they can support you,” says Adames. For example, if your boss is an Excel wizard, don’t be afraid to get their help when it comes to related tasks. Tapping into their strengths will help you to grow as a professional and show your boss that you value their expertise.

“You’re not going to get to the root of your manager’s insecurity, but pointing out their strengths could give them a little confidence boost,” says Adames. Lifting people up might not fix the situation, but spreading positivity will make you feel good and might help your manager to be a little less critical too.

Talk about it

Not all insecure managers are unreasonable. Some are unaware of how their behavior is impacting their team – and they care enough to try to fix things. If you think your manager falls into this category, it could be worth having a conversation with them. “Don’t tell them that they are insecure but rather point out some behaviors and explain the impact they have on you,” says Adames, who uses this technique with patients struggling with relationships.

He recommends saying something like: “When X and Y happened, it made me feel Z. I know it wasn’t your intention to make me feel this way, but I wanted to have a conversation about how we can deal with these situations in the future.”

Not all managers are open to this kind of feedback, so make sure that having a conversation like this won’t jeopardize the relationship or your job. Get to know your boss first and their communication style before sharing any kind of critical feedback.

Taking stock

No job is worth sacrificing your mental health to keep. If the situation has gotten so bad that it’s affecting your life outside work, it might be time to look for a new job. How do you know if it’s time to leave? Adames often tells patients to make a list of pros and cons. This can help you to see that the pros of resigning outweigh the cons — or that it might be worth sticking around for a little while longer. Get a second opinion from friends and family, if that’s appropriate, and take some time to assess how you’re doing. Has the situation at work become too difficult to cope with? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then it might be time to update your résumé and move on to the next opportunity.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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