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There is no such thing as moving through your career without getting stuck with a bad boss or five. It totally sucks and makes coming to work each day a challenge. Is he going to be sane today? Will she be on a tear today? Will he be traveling today (yes, please!)? Will she leave me alone today? What a crappy feeling to wake up to. Really awful bosses make all of us consider leaving our jobs…and many of us do just that. But let’s take a closer look.

First, let’s define some terms. Bad bosses come in a few varieties.

  • Absent, unavailable, non-existent. For those of you with a more present and volatile sort you would give anything for this ghost of a boss! This is someone who is either holed up in his office or constantly out of the office and generally not a significant presence. He communicates mostly via email or phone and you have very limited face-to-face time or valuable conversations. This results in you having to set your own course, find other ways to connect to the organization, assume you are doing okay without feedback to the contrary and feel a bit outside of things. Again, many of you would jump at the chance to be your own boss but most of us find this situation unnerving because it creates such a vacuum.
  • Jekyll and Hyde. One day you get the good boss and the next you get a lunatic. And you never know who is going to show up. At times you receive productive guidance and valuable feedback. At other times you are on the receiving end of blunt, even abusive, rantings. In many ways this is the most difficult situation because you are hopeful each day that good boss will show up and then you are disappointed when you get bad boss. Intermittent positive feedback is the most psychologically tough. You waste a lot of time trying to figure out the exact things you can do to bring out good boss. The problem is that it is not dependent on your actions at all.
  • Evil, unconscious and indiscriminate. The Hannibal Lector of bosses because they will eat you up and derive pleasure from it. Fortunately most of these people get fired but not as often as you would like. These are self centered, narcissistic and abusive people who care only about their own status and success. We are all their pawns to be used to further their own careers. They take credit for your work, manipulate and lie routinely and are relentlessly combative. Lots of sociopath behaviors.

For all you bosses out there who fit one of these descriptions…get help!! I know you have received feedback about  this over the years and have done very little to change. Sooner or later it will catch up with you and you will have a boss who won’t put up with it. Don’t fool yourself that a) you are too valuable to the company to ever be fired, b) you have kept up these behaviors because they are “winning!” and no one really expects you to change or c) your boss wants you to play bad cop. Get a coach. Get a therapist. Get help.

And for all the rest of us who have to live with these bosses every day I offer a few ideas to limit the negative impact of these bad bosses.

  • Find a safe confidante. Chances are that everyone is well aware of the bad behavior of your boss and they feel very sorry for you. Go to HR, go to a peer of your boss, go to the employee relations lawyer. Find one person who is in a position to keep your confidences as well as potentially do something about the situation. Don’t suffer alone.
  • Try to change your position. You may not have lots of options in your company but look for another team, another department or another project where you would like to be instead. Politely work the relationships that would help you get a transfer.
  • Don’t speak negatively in public. It is so tempting to bitch around the water cooler about a bad boss but don’t do it. Find a way to rise above the fray and demonstrate that you won’t sink to that nasty level. Walk away from those conversations and when asked directly “don’t you hate working for her” find a neutral response. “It has its challenges but I’m learning a great deal.” Your grace under fire will serve you very well in the larger scheme of things.
  • Learn meditation techniques. Find simple ways to control your own tension and upset. Deep breathing. Walks around the block. Mantra repetition. Anything that helps you stay grounded in a positive sense of yourself. Just because your boss yells at you doesn’t mean that anything is true or warranted.
  • Know when you need to leave. Some bosses make life so miserable that they affect our health. If you are suffering physically because of the situation or if you are having way more bad days than good, look for a new job. Sometimes we have to put up and shut up because we need the job. Stay actively networking and looking for a new place to land.

Unfortunately we will all work for some horrible bosses. There is no way to put a bow on this one. It sucks and we have to be clever about how to survive it. I often think about being on the other side. When I am in a new position or that person has left the company I would like people to think this about me. “She was in the worst situation and she handled it better than I can ever imagine. She deserves a medal!” I have seen many people get rewarded with an amazing boss or a plum assignment after the bad boss. You have shown a depth of character and the company feels badly for making you suffer.

So sometimes there is an eventual silver lining. But getting there is a bitch (or bastard).

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