How to Manage a Difficult Boss in Your Engineering Career

by Anthony Fasano, P.E., founder of Powerful Purpose Associates

Just so you know you're not alone, if I had a dollar for every engineer that told me they are dealing with a difficult boss I'd be a millionaire by now!

If you are dealing with a difficult boss, you are probably encountering one or more of the following frustrations. Your boss:

  • Micromanages you and doesn't allow you to do anything on your own;
  • Fails to give you responsibilities that you feel you are ready to take on, including, but not limited to, proposal preparation, client correspondence, attendance at meetings, and presentations;
  • Doesn't listen to you when you offer fresh and new ideas. To make matters worse, on several occasions you have seen how the company or project would have been in a better position if your boss had listened to you;
  • Isn't very flexible with your work schedule. This can be a real tricky situation if you have a family and need unexpected time off;
  • Is holding on to tasks and responsibilities that he or she should have delegated to you months ago, or in some cases years:
  • Doesn't include you in certain meetings or take you on business trips where you could learn and develop your leadership abilities;
  • Doesn't support you in pursuing credentials or additional training.

While this is a lengthy list of frustrations, they all yield the same result, which is career stagnation. This is the worst possible thing that can happen in your engineering career, as it becomes totally stagnant and you experience zero growth. Your career development becomes non-existent.

So what can you do to manage your boss and turn the situation around? Because there are many different manager overload scenarios engineers face and every person is different, below I have provided a menu of strategies all of which I have found to be successful in my own engineering career as well as the hundreds of engineers that I have coached. Implementing some of these strategies may help you manage your difficult boss and ensure stagnation doesn’t settle in on your engineering career.

  1. If your boss is a micromanager, beat him or her at the same game. Check in with your boss very regularly, keeping him or her closely apprised of your progress on each task. Doing this should increase your boss’s confidence in your abilities and in turn alleviate his or her need to monitor you as closely as he or she has in the past.
  2. If you have asked your boss for certain responsibilities in the past and have not succeeded, try a different approach. For example, let’s say that you want to sit in on a meeting with a client. Say to your boss, “John, I have asked you in the past if I can start to sit in on some client meetings, but that has yet to happen. I know you are busy and there are only certain meetings that I might be ready to sit in on. However, until some of those meetings arise, do you think I could talk with another manager in the company to see if they have any meetings that I can just quietly observe? I am really eager to learn and eventually partake in client interaction and hope to do so as soon as possible.” Your boss may be terrified of losing you to another department, or letting another manager see how good you are at what you do, and therefore he or she may seriously reconsider your request to sit in on a meeting. Just be sure to say it in a way that is sincere and not rude in any way.
  3. If your boss doesn’t listen to your ideas (or doesn’t ask for them), continue to offer them. DON’T STOP! When you offer up ideas, ask your boss if he or she thinks it’s a good or bad idea, and when they answer, ask WHY they’ve chosen that response. This will force them to think about how valuable the idea is and could initiate action on their part to implement your suggestions. If they say your idea is bad and tell you why, then learn from it for when you offer up ideas in the future.
  4. If you are looking for more flexibility in your work schedule from your boss, take some work home over the next month, work on it, and then tell your boss what you have been doing and why you find this method to be more productive.  Next you can either ask for a permanent flexible work schedule, or when you need to leave or arrive at a different hour from time to time, you can reinforce your recent out of the office productivity streak.
  5. If your boss is failing to relinquish certain responsibilities to you, try the same approach mentioned in item #2 above where you ask to explore them in another department. The other alternative (not ideal) is to offer to take on some of these responsibilities on your own time without pay. For example, we used to have client dinner meetings in order to get to know our clients and build more solid relationships. I offered to attend many of these types of meetings and did not put the time down on my timesheet. In the end, the time investment on my part was invaluable to my career development.

If after trying to implement these strategies your boss is still imparting stagnation into your career, you have 3 options.  One – deal with it, two – investigate the possibility of transferring to a different department or office within the same company, or three – leave the company altogether and find a better opportunity and working environment.

It’s up to you to engineer your own success in your career, whether your boss supports you or not. I believe that if you implement some of my strategies I’ve mentioned here, your career advancement will truly accelerate!

Anthony Fasano, P.E. is the founder of Powerful Purpose Associates and author of the bestselling book Engineer Your Own Success: 7 Key Elements to Creating an Extraordinary Engineering Career. Visit Anthony’s website at www.PowerfulPurpose.com for free engineering career development resources.