6 Ways to Rationally Deal with Your Rotten Boss
“He literally pitched my idea to the client as if it was his…right in front of me! I’d helped him build the presentation for weeks prior to delivering it to the client. He’s so worried about keeping his own job that he’ll stop at nothing to save his own a**, even if that means running over the rest of us.” My client recently vented this to me in our coaching session.
If you’ve been scratching your head reading about all the benevolent stories of compassionate, concerned leaders stepping up for their people during the pandemic, wondering why you’ve been deprived of such a boss in favor of one who’s become even more of a jerk than usual, you’re not alone. While COVID-19 has brought out the best in some parts of humanity, including many leaders, for others, it’s only intensified more of what was already there: lousy leadership. Leaders whose predispositions to unfettered anxiety, self-preservation, manipulative passive-aggression, and neurotic perfectionism have gotten worse under the pressures of leading through the pandemic. Another client vented to me, “All of a sudden, she’s treating me like I’m a child. I thought she trusted me, but since we started working from home, she checks in on me three to four times a day. I feel like I’m under 24/7 surveillance.” If your boss hasn’t stepped up to the challenge of leading with empathy, flexibility, and thoughtfulness in the pandemic, you’re not alone. According to this Gallup survey, less than half of employees (45 percent) feel strongly that their employer cares about their well-being. That’s a leadership indictment.
A set of studies by the University of Manchester of more than 1,200 people has shown that destructive personalities in bosses aren’t just a workplace nuisance. A leader’s manipulative, passive-aggressive, credit-taking, and overly-critical behavior can lead to workplace bullying, job dissatisfaction, psychological distress, and depression among employees. According to Mental Health America’s examination of over 17,000 employees across 19 industries, 64 percent of employees don’t feel their boss provides them adequate emotional support, and another survey found that 44 percent of employees have left a job because of a bad boss.
Reporting to such a leader can take a costly toll both on and off the job. But it doesn’t have to remain an endurance test. Your boss’s limitations shouldn’t completely dictate the degree to which you are able to contribute and thrive in your job. Whether your boss has been rotten since you’ve worked for them, or has only recently shown their dark side in the face of the pandemic, there are things you can do (besides indulge fantasies of extreme violence). Here are six strategies to attend to your own emotional and psychological health even when you have a boss who may not be attending to theirs.
Be ready for what you know is coming. If you’ve detected a nasty pattern of behavior in your boss, then you can prepare for it. One executive I worked with reported to the Business Unit (BU) President of their North America region. The BU President chronically played the “I know a secret game” with information by making statements alluding to things he was privileged to know that my client wasn’t. As is the case with most manipulative bosses, this was an elaborate form of evasion of direct conflict. Rather than openly disagreeing, he would say things like, “Well, I can understand why you’d see things that way, but there are more factors to consider that you wouldn’t know about from your position.” When my client would ask what those factors were, his boss would say things like, “Well, I’m just not at liberty to share them right now.” This, of course, left no alternative but to acquiesce to his boss’ preferences on any given decision or approach, and feel immensely frustrated in the process. I coached my client to get clarity on the front-end of decisions by asking, “Do I have all of the information I need to make this decision or is there information you have that could change my options?” This question forced the boss to either own the decision from the outset with mere input from my client, or free my client up to make the decision. Rather than feeling blindsided, limit your boss’s ability to make self-serving choices at critical moments by setting parameters and clarifying expectations in advance of those moments.
Monitor your own triggers and judgments. If your boss employs rotten behavior, no doubt you’ve been tempted to return the favor. If your inquiry about their obvious cold shoulder has been met with, “No, nothing’s wrong, I don’t know what you mean,” you’ve probably at least entertained the idea of being curt and emotionless right back. (Note: it’s a bad idea.) And if you feel your boss has taken undue credit for your work, don’t take the bait by going around the office privately letting others know it was really you who deserves it. Chances are, they already know. You get far more respect by being the bigger person.
There are several problems with lowering yourself to reciprocal passive aggression. First, it only reinforces your boss’s behavior by legitimizing it. Once you stoop to their level, you’ve colluded by creating an unspoken contract for how you intend to manage conflict with them, and using a more direct, mature approach later becomes inordinately difficult. Second, you’re likely to contradict your own values by behaving in ways you clearly don’t respect. Don’t presume your boss is aware of, or even has clear intentions for, their behavior. More often, manipulative, self-protective behavior is an unconscious response to anxiety or a perceived threat. At their core, these bosses tend to be lonely, deeply insecure, and perpetually anxious. As best as you can, adopt a compassionate rather than angry posture toward them—if for no other reason than to safeguard your own emotional health.
Hold fast to your values. If your boss behaves badly, you are more likely to follow suit. For example, research from Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, suggests that if your boss is dishonest, you are far more likely to be dishonest. Be clear on the values you want to govern your behavior, and resolute on what you believe constitutes compromising them. How you show respect to others, share ideas, give credit where due, and even talk about your own contributions are all informed by your values. Don’t let your boss’s contradiction of those values lead you to justify compromising them yourself.
Own your emotions, don’t stuff them. Trying to keep a stiff upper lip when enduring a boss’s nasty behavior can be hazardous to your health. Stuffing strong emotions like anger, hurt, and anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms of sleeplessness, headaches, digestive disorders, and general irritability. Recognize that these feelings may get triggered in unexpected situations. Finding a therapist or coach to talk to can be especially helpful. Being consumed by negative emotions can also cloud our judgment, distort how we see ourselves and others, and create chronic feelings of being overwhelmed. Having an outlet for these emotions is critical. Be especially attentive to your diet and alcohol intake, and where possible, increase physical activity and exercise. Turning to unhealthy activities to numb feelings of pain can be alluring when we can’t see alternatives. Talking to a trusted confidant can reduce feelings of isolation, and the risk of negative emotions becoming destructive.
Respectfully confront your boss. Directly confronting a nasty boss is rife with risk. You’re directly challenging someone who has made clear they don’t want to be direct and has disproportionate power over your life. I saw this go sideways once when a fed-up leader said to her boss, “Don’t think for a minute I don’t see what you’re doing here. I know for a fact you didn’t forget about the meeting because I saw you write it down. Your passive-aggressive BS isn’t fooling any of us.” Those in earshot of her confrontation gave her high-fives for putting her foot down. But a week later she was fired. Still, there are effective ways to raise your concerns without triggering the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. While it may feel imbalanced, going the extra mile to make the relationship feel safe for your boss can have long-term benefits. Those inclined to passive-aggressive behavior tend to do it less when they feel greater degrees of trust with others, so try to be non-judgmental and matter-of-fact.
Effectively addressing self-serving bosses requires using the patterns you’ve been given while being gracious. I saw this masterfully done when another person confronted her boss this way: “I’ve noticed in our last several meetings you’ve made sarcastic comments about my work, and I can’t tell if you’re just being funny, or if you actually have concerns about the quality of my work. I didn’t give it a thought after the first time, but now that it’s happened a few times, I just want to check in with you. If you have ideas on how I could improve, I’d really love to hear them.” She gave her boss the benefit of the doubt. She didn’t make it about her hurt feelings but rather about how she could improve. Her boss actually stepped up and said, “Yeah, sorry about those—I probably shouldn’t do that. But since you asked…” He went on to give her constructive input that she hadn’t considered.
Resist the lure of entitlement and apathy with gratitude. Two of a nasty boss’s common side-effects are believing you deserve restitution for what you’ve put up with, and indifference toward your work. Entitlement can begin gradually—taking longer lunches, padding travel expenses with nice meals, and escalate to more voracious acts of self-compensation, all justified by what you’ve tolerated in your idiot boss. But after those efforts fail to stem the hurt from your boss’s behavior, you stop caring about work altogether. Apathy is a dangerous byproduct of a boss’s mean behavior because it’s hard to compartmentalize. Once you stop caring about work, you stop caring about much of anything. You lose perspective about aspects of your profession and life for which you are genuinely grateful. Remind yourself of the passion behind why you chose your field. Remember the things you are uniquely gifted at. Inventory parts of your life that genuinely bring joy, and for which you are thankful. A sense of purpose, not a great boss, should be the reason you get up in the morning. You can’t let a horrible boss become the reason you don’t want to.
It may sound painfully unjust to consider managing what feels like the immaturity of a person who earns more money than you, and who has undue influence over your future. And on some level, it is. In the midst of a global health and economic crisis, quitting may not be an immediate option. But as the economy begins to restore, bosses who ended up on the wrong side of history during this pandemic will be exposed in ways they never imagined. For now, you have to decide if the assignment you’re in and the company that employs you hold benefits for your career that outweigh the cost required to manage a rotten boss. If they don’t, then at the first opportunity to do so, hire yourself a new boss.
Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.
This post was originally published on Forbes and is reprinted with permission.