Work It Out

The best way to deal with a volatile boss

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Dear Work It Out,

I've worked at small consultancy for about a year and a half. The sole business owner is also my boss.

I have taken on considerable responsibilities without formal recognition, at least in terms of compensation or title, but my boss has expressed a lot of accolades and said that I am one of the best employees she's had.

However, the company recently went through a rough patch and laid off 30 percent of the staff. My boss held a meeting with senior staff and blamed them for lack of sales. In these settings she tends to become very emotional. She will cry and at times become irrational.

She also tends to lash out when she feels challenged. A few times I have offered feedback in a collaborative environment or said something seemingly insignificant that snowballed. In each instance, she has openly told me in a separate meeting that her behavior was in direct response to something I said or did — effectively telling me that she was retaliating — or was a result of feeling the need to show authority.

I have had several meetings with her trying to address these issues head on. Typically, there is a moderate change in behavior for a short period and then something similar happens that sets everything back.

This summer is when it came to a head. She insulted my work in front of our client and tried to shut me out of meetings. In each instance, the client noticed and pulled me in or disagreed. Ultimately, this has really shattered our relationship.

I am actively looking for new positions but not sure how to proceed with my current role. Looking for some advice or help on this.

Dealing with a volatile boss is tricky.

It's important to first determine whether you're working for a toxic, abusive manager, or one that's stressed out and behaving badly.

Your boss seems to fit the latter category. If that's the case, try taking a step back and attempting to see the situation from her perspective.

There's a learning curve that every worker must go through. Like a child realizing their parents don't know everything, there's a point when employees must understand that their bosses are human, fallible and sometimes emotionally messy.

Your boss shoulders ultimate responsibility for the business, and if it's not performing well, she may be experiencing significant emotional and financial distress. She is more invested — figuratively and literally — than anyone else on the team, which may explain why she's gotten upset.

It's also worth noting that female leaders tend to be judged more harshly for crying at work and getting "too emotional." You may want to do a gut check on your own unconscious biases: Has gender colored your view of her actions?

Once you have a better understanding of your boss and her possible motives, for better or worse, you can begin developing strategies for how to deal with her.

I would certainly advise against disagreeing with her in public, since she may feel attacked or undermined (as she alluded to). Instead, bring issues up privately and calmly. In these meetings, take care to avoid seeming adversarial, and show that you are there to support her and help solve problems.

In an emotionally charged environment, it also helps to recognize your own feelings and instinctive reactions. While you can't control your boss, you can change your response to her. Practice emotional detachment as best you can, and advocate for yourself by seeking clarity on her expectations and priorities.

It's great that you've been proactive about addressing these issues with her directly: It gives you the opportunity to express yourself and offers her the chance to respond. Try to remove your ego from these interactions, listen for feedback, reflect on how your actions may contribute, and course correct where necessary. Then, you may need to give it some time and see what happens.

If in the end the situation doesn't improve or you feel the dynamic has become toxic, it may be time to escalate — either by going to HR or heading for the exit.

Have a pressing career concern or question? Email me anonymously at workitout@cnbc.com. Submissions may be edited for length and clarity.

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There are three types of toxic coworkers—here's how to deal with them
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