Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Work with a Domineering Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a domineering boss who micromanages everything I do. He has no filter when speaking to me and often is just outright rude. Whenever I send out a piece of work, he finds fault with it and tries to undermine my confidence. Having read online about his characteristics, I truly believe he suffers from narcissism. The sad fact is that he gets results and senior management love him, so he is untouchable. How can I deal with this aside from leaving the company?


Dear Diagnosable,

I’ve learned two things about myself that I want to offer to you. They may or may not apply. But try them on for size. If they fit, they’re the fastest path to peace and resolution of your complaints.

First, I’ve learned that any time I don’t feel compassion for another human being, the problem is in me. The problem always begins with me carrying a story about them that turns a human into a villain. The way I do that is by equating their weaknesses with permanent labels and by assiduously avoiding any virtues they might have in my characterization of them.

Take a moment to read back over your question. Take an inventory of the adjectives you use to describe your boss. Then ask yourself, are they precise or exaggerated? Are they a full picture or a highly edited list? Are there reasonable third parties who would tell a different story? If so, part of the problem is in you.

Now let me hasten to add that some people’s weaknesses can be intolerable. You’ll see in my second life lesson that I do not equate compassion with permission. Don’t take anything I’ve said so far as an argument that your misery is fiction or that his weaknesses aren’t profound. But since I’m talking to you and not to him, I urge you to entertain the possibility that your choice of adjectives (domineering, micromanages everything, no filter, outright rude, finds fault, undermines, narcissism) is deeply shaping your experience of and response to his flaws.

So I ask you to consider:

  • How does your story about him affect your attitude and behavior toward him?
  • How does your story about him affect the way you try to influence his weaknesses?
  • Would a more moderated and complete story change your attitude, emotions and behavior?

My second life lesson is that my anger, fear, resentment or blame are often evidences that I am not setting and maintaining boundaries. So I ask you, could it be that part of your motivation to use extreme adjectives in describing him has to do with your own failure to set and hold boundaries for how you allow him to treat you?

Here’s an example of both of these principles in action. I once worked with a leader on a once-in-a-career project. I felt honored, thrilled, and lucky to be involved. One day I did something he didn’t like. Whereas he had been the picture of professionalism in all our previous interactions, on this Friday afternoon he screamed over the phone at me for sixty seconds straight, hurling profanities and threats at me, then hung up abruptly. I felt stunned and terrified. Then I felt angry and weak. An hour or so later my emotions devolved to resentment and disgust.

I sat limp for an hour generating one adjective after another to describe him and how he had treated me.

I share this example to illustrate that the principles I’m sharing do not dismiss the responsibility of the other person. What he did was intolerable. What he did was rude, vindictive, and wrong.

And yet how I next responded to his weaknesses had just as much to do with my felicity or misery as his initial transgressions. I first began a narrow study of the injustice of what happened with the goal of making him the villain and myself the virtuous victim. And the more I worked at this project, the less likely I was to set and hold a boundary with him. The more I told myself that my client was an abusive monster, the less likely I was to confront his unacceptable behavior.

Sometime that weekend I turned a mental corner. I began to open the possibility not only that I was part of the problem that led to his bad behavior, but that I had a responsibility to myself and to him to address what he had done. The larger the picture I allowed myself to see of him, the more human he began to appear to me.

On Monday morning I made my nervous phone call. I said, “I understand from what you said Friday that what I did disappointed and embarrassed you. I failed. If you no longer want to work with me, I understand and I’ll resign.” Pause. Then I continued, “And I’m willing to listen to your feedback if you want to give me another shot. But I will not work with you any further if you talk to me that way again. I want your word that you will address me professionally if you have concerns with me.”

Should you look for another job? Perhaps. But if you haven’t first confronted the possibility that (1) your story is part of the problem and (2) your failure to set and hold boundaries motivates some of your resentment, those weaknesses may influence your experience with future bosses as well.

I wish you the best in the decision ahead.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

13 thoughts on “How to Work with a Domineering Boss”

  1. Tina Dickens

    I have to say, I needed the reminder. I shared the same issues as the sender. I thought I was being micro-managed and used all the same adjectives to describe my boss. Reading Crucial Conversations and the tips and advice you give helped to save my job and sanity. I sat down with my boss and had that hard conversation and we realized we were not communicating effectively. We have since correct our boundaries and have a great working and personal relationship.

    1. Joseph Grenny

      That’s wonderful to hear! I’m so glad to know our work was of use to you.

  2. Susan Anderson

    So what did he say after you apologized and set your boundaries?!

    1. Joseph Grenny

      Good question! He blandly acknowledged his offense. Not an impressive apology. However, he never handled a problem between us like that again and we collaborated a number of times in the future.

  3. Ronni Talmadge, CPCS,CPMSM

    I enjoy your articles Joseph and I try to use the examples. Curious, what did your boss say after the phone call?

  4. Ray

    Brilliant advice. W

  5. Laura

    Assuming the person truly is a narcissist, additional steps may need to be taken to protect oneself from the consequences that may result from setting a boundary. Narcs hate boundaries and accountability and often when subjected to these things, they get really nasty fast. Trusting one’s gut and asking for help is commendable and this wasn’t acknowledged in the response. People that have to deal with individuals that have this personality disorder often feel isolated. I think the response will also leave the writer trying to deal with this on their own. Check the numbers, this personality disorder is more prevalent in management than in the general population. Yes, it is important not to demonize people and yes it is important to set boundaries, however, there are situations where this course of action is not advisable. There is a power differential here that has not been addressed and not everyone is brave enough to look a person in the eye who by diagnosis has no comprehension of how their behavior impacts others and does not care and further is willing to take out anyone who would uncover their lies. I would appreciate a bit more research into this personality disorder before answering a question where such an individual may be involved and I think your audience would as well.

    1. Sam

      Hiya, I hear what you’re saying, and I agree.

      I also think the reply remains useful, and that your implication that Joseph doesn’t know about narcissism within management a little off-putting, simply because it highlights the assumptions and bias you’ve brought about Joseph and yourself.

      (I don’t know Joseph, or even live in the same country, and he can feel however he likes about your comment. I highlight this because your insult/implication says more about you than Joseph, and therefore doesn’t assist in understanding your perspective. )

      Now… I did say I agree with you. I know the research. I’ve also experienced the narcissistic boss first hand, which, from your passion, I suspect you also have experienced this behaviour. It can be soul-destroying and I acknowledge that.

      Thing is, you highlight the difficulties of power, courage and isolation. Yet what are the options… as different to Joseph’s response? How do you use the crucial conversations learnings to deal with the question posed? You want the writer validated… ok… “well done for writing in”… but the difficulties of courage and isolation, for example, are not best addressed through validation. Maybe those difficulties are addressed through the return of some realisation the writer still has agency in this?

    2. Lynn

      Laura is 100% correct. Narcissistic Personality Disorder…everyone needs to be more familiar with the red flags, survival strategies and coping mechanisms, including leaving the company if it gets to that point.

    3. Jimmy


      Thanks for your perspective as I share similar experiences. After approaching a colleague in a position of responsibility over me as professionally and politely as I could a few times to foster a productive work environment, this person filed a complaint against me to HR as creating a hostile work environment.

      To make a long story shorter, after unsuccesful attempts made by our supervisor, HR mediated with our department.

      It was interesting to see how other coworkers also voiced their experiences with this same person. Many coworkers shared how this specific person was the one creating a hostile work environment.

      This person became very defensive.

      HR, in a professional yet personable manner, asked this person several times to “reflect” on what others were sharing instead of being defensive.

      This person stated I was creating an unhealthy environment of competition. Interestingly, during HR’s mediation, this person stated I was confident at what I do, was trusted and had the respect of others.

      Unfortunately after many repeated attempts made by my supervisor and HR, this person’s behavior towards me continues. Interestingly, this person has now been promoted officially as my supervisor.

      In our first 1:1 meeting the first thing this person tells me is “I am now in charge”.

      There’s more to this but suffice it to say while reviewing the stories I tell myself on interactions that needs to be considered, I appreciate your approach and perspective on “Diagnosable’s” query.

      Recognizing an individual’s pathology can be valuable as one can know what resources are available and next steps to consider.

      While I might be able to manage someone’s quirky behaviors, it is not my job to manage someone’s pathology as doing so is outside my scope of expertise, job description and responsibilities.

      Having a level of awareness for someone’s pathology could assist with creating strong and clear boundaries. And can assist in fostering a work relationship that’s realistic for the circumstances needed.

      However, as many are aware, no matter how one tries to interpret or look at the adjectives we tell ourself about our experiences with others, there are times when interpersonal relationships are unresolvable (for a variety of reasons), unrealistic and unattainable.

      Promoting a healthy work environment is much more challenging to achieve when there’s failure by leadership and especially the work culture.

      When organizational leadership does not provide the needed support, it may be time to reconsider whether staying has their merits. A colleague had shared previously their approach to working with similar persons in a position of responsibility— when the reasons to stay are no longer sustainable, that’s when it’s time to leave.

      If after repeated attempts for healthy conversation fail, “Diagnosable” might consider weighing the merits of staying in an “abusive” work environment and if leaving to another place can really provide a healthier or desired work environment.

      Best wishes to you “Diagnosable”.

      I hope you have a community that supports and understands your circumstances and most of all, you can identify what steps to take that works with your circumstances and most fitting for you.

  6. susan johnson

    I also had an issue with a former Boss, she would say little cutting remarks, one day I had enough and I told her the way you are talking to me is not ok and you need to think about it, later she came and apologized to me , we never had a problem after that, and I remember thinking the first time she spoke to me and I never said anything , and when she spoke to me like that again it was my fault because I didn’t say anything the first time.

  7. Shana

    Thank you for Q&A and the discussion in the comments. It strikes me that there is a power imbalance than may inhibit some from following Mr. Grenny’s advice. It sounds as though Mr. Grenny was in the fortunate position of being able to resign if the circumstances necessitated. For those who are not empowered in this way, a barrier exists to implementing his suggestion. I am interested to see additional suggestions for creating boundaries that might help the employee retain some of their own power and self-respect while not compromising their employment.

    1. Shana

      Thank you.

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