Hate Your Supervisor?

November 05, 2003

If you work long enough in the adjunct business, you will at some point clash with a supervisor. And then you get to figure out how to keep your job and your sanity while reporting to someone you can't stand.

In some ways, we adjuncts have it better than our counterparts in the business world. We don't spend eight hours a day at one site with a pesky boss constantly looking over our shoulders. Instead, we move from campus to campus, with a variable schedule, and may go days without actually seeing the administrators who hire and supervise us.

If you dislike your boss, the good news is that you probably won't have to spend much time with him or her over the course of the semester. Our supervisors are usually department or division heads, or the people they appoint to administer the hiring of adjuncts for the department. They hire us, tell us what to teach, give us whatever additional instructions are necessary, point us to our mailboxes and offices (if we're lucky), and leave us to do the job.

But while you may not have to deal with your supervisor from hell every day, you will have to at some point. Developing a strategy can help you keep your job and your peace of mind as you make your way through the adjunct maze.

Your first step should be to consider the reasons you dislike your boss. Are they legitimate? It's time for a little honest inquiry into your feelings about this person. It may be that your reasons aren't really good ones. And maybe you can find a way to set aside those negative feelings.

For example, I had an adjunct colleague years ago who hated our supervisor for serving on a university committee that made decisions detrimental to adjuncts. My friend's resentment built up over time until he had a hard time even showing up for meetings where the supervisor was present. Every negative comment or story he heard about our supervisor only added to my friend's pool of damning "evidence" and to his own rancor. Finally, he went to talk to the supervisor about the committee's decisions and found out that our supervisor was completely unaware that the committee's decisions had an ill effect on adjuncts. The supervisor wasn't evil, just ill-informed. After the conversation, my adjunct friend was able to get over his resentment and at least work with the supervisor, although he still didn't like him.

The tension was resolved in that case when my friend got accurate information about the boss he so disliked. Often, however, we dislike people because we've made up our minds about them based on hearsay, first impressions, or gossip. Or, we take one negative incident or issue and let it determine the context for every other interaction with that person. In that circumstance, no matter what your supervisor, you will receive it negatively.

By exploring your own feelings about your supervisor and your history with that person, you may shed light on where your relationship took a wrong turn. You don't necessarily have to talk to your boss about those feelings. You may be able to adjust your thinking and attitude on your own.

Moreover, it's possible to dislike someone intensely and still have a decent working relationship. That's simply a matter of professionalism. You stick to the tasks at hand and let the rest of it fall away.

If you dislike your supervisor because of some policy or procedure related to the work or treatment of adjuncts, then speak to him or her about it professionally. See if something can be worked out. But make a distinction in your mind between the policy and the person. If you separate the two, it's possible to carry on discussions in a constructive, respectful manner.

If you notice that you are investing lots of energy in badmouthing your supervisor to others, it's time to look closely at what's happening with you.

Chances are, you are getting some sort of charge out of trashing your boss, or else you would find a way to work past it and create a better relationship. We can get a perverse sort of pleasure in disliking people, especially those who have some measure of power over us. Get your pleasure however you want to -- it's a free country -- but if your work is being compromised by those feelings, it's in your best interest to get to the bottom of them. A healthy dose of self-examination never hurts.

But say that you've done everything you can to make the best of a bad situation. What tactics can you employ then to deal with a supervisor you detest? Make every effort to minimize the direct contact you have with your boss. Rely on e-mail as much as possible for your interactions. That way, you will stay in the loop, but you don't have to meet face to face.

If you still have to be around your boss in major meetings, stay under the radar so that your personal interaction is minimized even when you're both in the same room. Or, try the opposite approach: Seek out your supervisor, cover whatever topics are necessary in a crisp, professional way, then move on and away.

I took such steps once with a supervisor I disliked. He was old, I was young; he was stodgy, I was hip; he was conservative and religious, I was liberal and agnostic. So, we didn't get along too well. Then I got over myself and realized that he was just who he was, and I was just who I was at the time, and that didn't have to translate into my disliking him for it.

Even after I lightened up about him, I still had to deal with the way he would drag meetings out until we had all nearly melted into the floor with boredom and exasperation. He wore lots of different hats at the university, so I offered to run some of the adjunct meetings for him "since you must be so busy with all these meetings and must be dying to get back to your research." After a while, he took me up on my offer and -- poof! -- another source of my dislike for him disappeared. It became clear to me that I disliked the meetings, not him. There's a difference.

Then there was the issue of his personal hygiene. Like many of us in this business, he was "grooming challenged." Frankly, he smelled bad and I didn't want to be near him. So, I tried to sit across the room from him at meetings, and I moved lots of my interaction with him to e-mail. Over time, our e-mail correspondence evolved into little personal comments here and there, and I actually started to like him. He was simply a stodgy conservative academician who didn't pay attention to his appearance and was socially challenged. And he was my "boss." So what?

Whatever you do to manage your bad feelings about a supervisor, you must be sure that your dislike doesn't hurt you in any way professionally. You have to stuff it, quell it, negate it, or neutralize it so that it doesn't come back to haunt you.

Like them or not, supervisors hold your job in their hands if you're an adjunct. Your dislike won't pay the bills. Of course, many adjunct jobs won't either. But that's a different column.

Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, writes a monthly column for Career Network on adjunct life and work. She is author of a self-published book, How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual. Her Web site is and her e-mail address is