I recently accepted a promotion, not really because of my own desire but because management wanted me to take on a new role. The new job is fine, but the head of the department I now work for seems completely miserable. He basically does the job of three people, because of changes upper management has forced on him.
Dealing with him has been horrible. I’m still learning this job and have questions and need help doing things that only he knows how to do. He responds to me with such exasperation that I think twice before I approach him. He doesn’t seem mad at me; he just seems to hate his job and his managers. He doesn’t want to be there but evidently has nowhere else to go.
A: If your description is accurate, it’s no wonder he’s unhappy: Your company sounds rather poorly managed. I don’t know why he has “nowhere else to go,” but I wonder whether you do, and what you think your opportunities at this place will be.
But let’s say you really want to hold on to this position you didn’t seek. You’re already doing the most important thing one can do when sorting out how to deal with an unpleasant boss or colleague: You’ve made the effort to figure out why this person is such a drag.
If it’s correct that he has basically been put in an impossible position, then have some sympathy, and then consider two courses of action.
The minimalist strategy: Do what you’re doing, but even more so. Be extremely selective about what you must extract from this boss to do your job, timing your requests according to his apparent misery level. Strive for a future in which you interact with him as little as possible.
The more ambitious strategy: See if there is a way you can take on responsibilities that would benefit you in the long run and make this manager’s life less “miserable” right now. Propose this option in a way that suggests both empathy and engagement: “I know you’ve been asked to do a lot, and since I’m interested in X maybe I could help you by handling that?”
But given the evidence of higher management’s performance at your company, I would add that even if you pursue the more ambitious strategy, do so with an eye toward future options elsewhere.