Negotiating with an unreasonable manager

by Calum Coburn

Learn how to deal with an unreasonable manager. This article will show you how to incorporate a negotiation style and give advice on the best time to have a meeting and make it right.

You've likely worked for an unreasonable and demanding manager, or perhaps have heard of horror stories about them from your co-workers. Let's examine how you can negotiate a happy resolution when confronted by this situation. We have to view the circumstances in the proper perspective to fully appreciate just how unreasonable they are being before we take action to counter the problem. Of course, you have never been unreasonable…

Regardless of the evolutionary process, neurologists point out we still possess a 'reptilian brain' stem sitting at the top of our spinal column called our 'amygdala'. Our 'reptilian brain' is still powerfully linked with 'fight or flight' responses that gave our ancestors the edge to survive threatening situations. Although you may connect your manager to a saber tooth tiger for example, the chemical reaction triggered in our brains and our resulting responses are not that dissimilar.

Flight Option

Just back up for a moment though! Your BATNA is a valuable source of empowerment. Imagine how much more powerful your position would be if you were to confront your manager and told them that you had a fantastic new job waiting in the wings. Even if you didn't tell anyone else about the offer, you would now be more free to speak your mind and would be in a better position to walk away. If you still want to leave your job then you might want to at least give your manager a chance to reconsider their position by telling them about your attractive offer. When you apply this form of 'flight path' you will gain more power and freedom.

So, you may have considered the 'flight' option such as finding a new job or perhaps considered changing companies even though these option appear as a somewhat extreme reaction. In negotiation this is called your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). All right, you really might even like the company, have great co-workers you would miss, and actually enjoy the challenges of your curent position. If this applies to you then perhaps it would be better not to trifle with the 'flight' idea.

Fight Option

Some people say "It's my job, I work hard for the company and I see no reason why "I" should be the one to walk - that's just not right!" This is very true. The question is - are you ready for a 'fight'? Aristotle once wrote that "Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry at the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy." So before you decide to engage in a duel, stop a moment and look at the best ways to win the battle, and the war. Let's look at several potentially insightful questions you should ask yourself.

Questions to ask

Does your manager treat everyone like this? If that's the case then don't take it personally. Rather, you should be curious to learn how others are able to handle them, or at least cope with them. If there is some other person with whom your manager seems more reasonable, then talk with this person and ask them what they're doing or aren't doing to keep your manager happy. They may know a skill or two that could be lucrative to your long-term career prospects.

Has your manager always been this way? If they haven't, then maybe they're experiencing a high degree of stress or even personal problems. These things will likely pass, so maybe it would be wiser to 'batton down the hatches' and weather the storm. On the other hand, you could have a quiet word with your HR professionals. This could prove to be beneficial by providing your manager with the helping hand they badly need, but were too afraid or proud to ask for assistance.

How well do you personally know your manager? It's far easier to be unreasonable with someone you professionally interact, but don't really know. It's human nature to treat those we know and like more equitably. So how about getting to know your manager on the sly, and give your manager the opportunity to get to know you more? What is there to lose? Use your lunch or tea breaks and break the ice, and perhaps you will learn that you both share a sport in common. Perhaps you could even challenge them to a game! (Be careful not to take it out on them in the squash court!).

Are the issues that are making them unreasonable the real issues behind their attitude, or is there some other agenda buried somewhere beneath the surface? Perhaps you've heard psychologists say that we start fights for tiny or the silliest of reasons, but that the real reason for being upset arises from something that happened in the past snd has been festering inside ever since. Could their nose still be out of whack from some past incident you had long forgotten about? If you can't put your finger on the cause, perhaps your colleagues are distant enough to impartially identify the real reason. They may want badly to tell you, but only you can bring yourself to trust them enough to ask.


Suppose you now decide that you need to speak to them and tell them how you feel so you can fianally put the matter to bed once and for all. What approach should you take? First, let's examine the approach that you should not take. Don't affix it onto the back of a meeting and mention it towards the end. This can send out the wrong signal. They might not consider it serious enough to warrant a separate meeting, such as an after thought instead of being worth pushing to the top of the agenda. Instead, it would be more productive to schedule a meeting for the express purpose of resolving your working relationship together. Clearly indicate that this is an issue that you consider serious, and that it deserves immediate attention.Don't procrastinate. Schedule the meeting as soon as possible, but don't book a meeting when they are about to rush out to another important meeting as you won't gain their undivided attention. Check their diary first.

Now that you've called the meeting, you need to outline the agenda and clarify the issues. What impression do you want to present? A big mistake would be to overemphasize the stark reality, whilst taking pains to drone on about the negative aspects of the realtionship. It would be much better to 'begin with the end in mind' - Steven Covey's second self leadership habit. Emphasize the positive aspect of how it could be if you both were working harmoniously together. Your manager can be invited to add their own impressions and make it a shared reality. If you do feel it necessary to give examples to emphasize the current dismal reality, don't make it personal. Discuss the problem from the company's perspective, rather than your own. Your manager will likely be much more motivated to fulfil their role of deveolping a productive team, rather than to make this the most enjoyable work environment simply to suit your needs.

Don't forget to mention the probable resulting cost to the company if the status quo persists. This approach will motivate them to move away from the future worst case scenario and towards a more harmonious work enviroment. You want to explain the many positive consequences that will benefit both your manager personally and the company, when you both begin to work together by creating the changes and enviroment in which you both can thrive.


Negotiating your way successfully through career challenges such as these will create the foundation that will make you a great manager. Who knows, some day you might be sitting on the other side of the table listening to similar complaints from a member of your team. Don't worry though, all have to do is keep a copy of this article on hand and pass a copy to your subordinate along with a knowing wink and smile.

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