It happens to all of us at one point or another. A job we take has someone supervising us who is less than ideal, diplomatically speaking. It might take us awhile to realize how truly miserable this makes us, but once we know where we are, there are strategies to employ that will ensure the situation is temporary.

I’ve heard stories from my clients about all kinds of bad bosses in aid work and international development. I think there are a lot of reasons that someone in our line of work would be a stressful supervisor.

Before I show you my tactics for dealing with stressful supervisors, let’s use empathy and try to understand our situation from an emotional perspective.

Using emotional intelligence to analyze a stressful situation at work is useful because it gives me insight into other people’s motives and priorities.

Here is my “Empathy Approach.” I use it to understand the background, motives and desires of someone I run into who’s giving me a tough time:


The Expat Backup Empathy Approach

1. How long has this person been working in international development without a career break?

Everybody gets burned out after a long stint without a break. Is your boss burned out? It’s pretty likely.

2. What is this person’s family situation?

Aid work and international development can be lonely work with long hours and long distances going between seeing close friends and family. My little sister is pregnant and I wish I could go to the U.S. to see her more. I also wished I could go to all my friends’ weddings. It’s hard to make choices that balance family and career.

For most of us, it’s also hard to be single and working abroad. Right? So take this into account.

3. Where is this person from?

Culture, age, status and gender all play a huge role in influencing how we communicate. People working as aid workers or in international development, by the nature of our work, come into contact with colleagues, supervisors and stakeholders who are very different than we are.

Acknowledge this, and you’ll be empowered to take steps towards making things better.


I also use this technique with taxi drivers and government workers and all sorts of people. Empathy is a key emotional and social intelligence and a valuable skill in aid work and international development.

So, now that you’ve used the Empathy Approach, do you understand what could be happening a little bit better? When you take yourself personally out of the equation, do you see what could be going on in your boss’s life that could prompt this kind of bad behavior?

Apply the Empathy Approach to anyone in your life who is stressing you out. Let it create some healthy distance between you and them. Stress is unhealthy. Avoid it at all costs.

Now that you see some contributing factors that could be influencing stress at work, I’m going to show you what you can do about it.



The #1 thing to survive a bad boss is to set Boundaries, with a capital B.

This is the most important thing you must do, immediately and from now on. Clear boundaries communicated with patience and compassion are going to signal that you are someone to be treated with respect. Your boss will get this.

Setting boundaries can be approached a variety of ways. I like to:


1. Get clear on a specific issue or behavior I am setting a boundary around.

This can be working weekends, taking late-night phone calls, not changing plans because of a last-minute “emergency,” et cetera

2. Describe that boundary in a simple statement.

“I’m not available to work in the evenings at this point,” is a good exmaple. So is, “Those plans were made in advance. I’m not able to change them.” Work this out for yourself and practice saying it. If it’s a respectful, reasonable boundary, and it’s what you need, it will sound and feel right.

3. Communicate that boundary in a low-stakes conversation.

If if your boss and you work together in a country or regional office, you’re going to need to do this face-to-face, the old-fashioned way.

I’m location independent so I often communicate my boundaries by email. This takes practice, though, so I don’t recommend it if you’re just starting out setting good boundaries for yourself where you work.

4. If you need to, follow-up respectfully.

Often, boundaries need to be repeated. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes it’s very difficult for a supervisor to hear you. Listening, like empathy, is a professional skill and can be learned. You’re doing a service to your supervisor by clearly requesting what you need.


The #2 thing to survive a bad boss is to never, ever gossip or complain about him or her.

No exceptions on this one — not even to your mentor or your best friend. Share and strategize your boundaries and your way out, if you need to, but never, ever be unkind. This is because you are not going to sacrifice any bit of your integrity in this situation. You are going to handle this situation with grace and ease. So no shit talking.

So, there are some tactics for dealing with challenging supervisors. Use them and watch yourself breathe a little easier in difficult situations.


What if you could work with any supervisor because you know how to set clear and reasonable boundaries that earn you respect?

Sure, it will take tactics and a bit of work — but it’s worth it.

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