Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Learning to Handle On-the-job Tension

QUESTION: I love my job but I'm having difficulty getting along with my boss. Our personalities clash and we always seem to be getting in petty disagreements. This underlying tension makes it harder and harder to get up and go to work each day. Can you offer some ways for us to begin easing the conflict?

ANSWER: The struggles you are experiencing with your boss may be exacerbated by differences in personality styles. Since the disagreements you describe occur around "petty" incidents, it is more likely that your greater difficulty lies in dealing with authority. Clearly, since your boss is in the position of authority, you will not win a battle for power. No wonder you are feeling defeated.

Consider two approaches to solving this problem and reducing tension between you.

  • Consider what the appropriate boundaries should be between the two of you. Is your boss crossing these boundaries or are you crossing your boss' boundaries?

    For example: When your boss delegates responsibility, does he or she stop there, giving feedback but respecting your autonomy to fulfill your job responsibilities? Or does your boss micro-manage each step of your project?

    If you object to any feedback or to accepting assignments (within your job description) you may be over reacting to authority. This can occur because you are either not used to being supervised, or your experience of authority figures in the past was disappointing. An unsatisfying relationship with previous authority figures (parents, teachers, or previous supervisors) can cause you to mistrust or resist guidance in general. Reflect on whether your boss' personality triggers any negative associations to previous authority figures in your life. If so, you could be negatively charging the interactions between the two of you. Separate these associations from the present relationship with your boss and count to ten before reacting to "petty" incidents.

    If your boss is micro-managing your every step, he or she is crossing your boundaries and you will have to address it. Ask to have a meeting to talk about your work responsibilities. Show appropriate respect for your boss' position and positive qualities. Let your superior know you value feedback, but that you are getting so much input that it is disruptive to your productivity. Establish appropriate times for feedback and discussion.

  • Consider whether you are giving messages of disrespect to your boss in any way. If you are struggling with authority issues, it may be difficult to let small conflicts go. You may be expressing your disrespect by "picking fights" about unimportant things, such as where the water cooler should be placed or whether to use colored paper clips. Choose your battles. It is in your best interest to allow this person to feel in control. Small items do not matter. Big ones do. Clarify the differences for yourself. If you feel the need is justified, do speak up. But do so in a respectful manner.

    If you have come to terms with the fact of your boss' authority over you and clarified boundaries, mutual respect can be established. Some peace offering may be beneficial. Consider your boss' positive qualities and be willing to comment on them as the opportunity presents itself. Thank him or her for a good idea or suggestion, even if given to someone else. All of us respond to genuine appreciation. Balancing criticisms with appreciation may help to deflate the tension between you.

Assuming your boss' comments are not motivated by a desire to undermine your job performance, there should be some improvement in your situation following these suggestions. If difficulties persist, or further help is needed to establish a healthier work environment do not hesitate to consider other options. A consult with a supervisor may provide you with a more objective viewpoint.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com