Theme: Get it off your chest.
Over the years, I’ve had a variety of jobs and the bosses that come with them. There was Screaming Boss. Sleazy Boss. Manipulative Liar Boss. Belittling Boss. Batshit Crazy Boss. Dictator-Jekyll-and-Hyde-Hybrid Boss. Of course, there were Brilliant Bosses. True leaders who shine at their jobs, mentor and encourage those around them. I just wish there were more of them.
I’ve worked in all sectors – public, private, non-profit. There’s no pattern. Horrible bosses are everywhere, male and female alike. I understand that managing people is hard, and it took me a while to get the hang of it too. I make mistakes and silly choices every day (hell, in all aspects of my life) but I do my best to learn from them and do better. Naturally, employees and coworkers can be tough to deal with, as well. But there’s something about bosses and their “management” and “leadership” styles that pervades all the way through an organization. If your boss is having a rough day and takes it out on those around them, guaranteed, you’ll feel it – even if you’re in a different room, on a different floor. Emotions are contagious. Thankfully, the same is also true for the styles of Brilliant Bosses.
I may have bloody high standards as an employee, a boss, a coworker, but that’s no bad thing. I just think there’s no excuse for bad behavior. Granted, there’s always a deeper reason why people act the way they do. Anxiety about competition, ageing, money, looks, sheer jealousy can lead bosses to do weird and unpleasant things. There’s also the Peter Principle, which explains how people are promoted because of their ability to do their current role, with little regard to their intended position. Managers gradually “rise to the level of their incompetence.”
Dictator-Jekyll-and-Hyde-Hybrid Boss had a fondness for micromanagement and mood swings, and made us so nervous that we worked even longer hours, constantly treading on eggshells. We were so scared of doing something wrong, always uncertain what the reaction would be. Simply worn out, we ended up making mistakes that we’d never otherwise make, which led to a vicious circle. Belitting Boss insinuated that I was “slow”, very loudly in our open plan office, after calling my (smart, lovely) coworker who made occasional typos “dyslexic”. Sleazy Boss told me when no-one else was around, “I want to come visit you in Rome.” Dammit, I’d got a job abroad to get out of your office.
Batshit Crazy Boss so viciously derided me – and my coworkers – that on more than one occasion, I left calmly and quietly for the restroom – or a five minute walk around the building (times like this, I seriously think about taking up smoking), anything to escape that toxic atmosphere. If tears flowed, I pulled myself together and forced myself to just get on with it. You can never show that it affects you, or things get worse.
If I think about all the bosses, maybe the connection and the common pattern was me? Maybe I didn’t stand up for myself enough, let myself be pushed around, simply too eager to please. Maybe I gave a lot of second chances (which became twentieth chances before too long).
But, of course, it’s not just me. A friend – let’s call her Natalie – recounts her time working in Manhattan in her early 20s, when she was once called into her supervisor’s office. Let’s call this woman Joan.
Joan: I don’t like the way you walk.
Natalie (inwardly, WTF?): Oh?
Joan: I see you walking from your desk to the kitchen. You’re too slow. It gives a bad impression.
Natalie (inwardly, WTF WTF!)
Cut to: A few days later.
Joan: Natalie, I saw you walking on the street the other day! You were fast. You do know how to walk!
Natalie’s pragmatic about things. “Don’t rise to it, don’t show you care,” she says. “It’s good to do the best you can, and natural to want to seek approval. But you can’t choose who you work with. So I just ignored it and got on with my job. You have to, especially if you’re forced to work together on a project.”
It’s true. Life is too short. After nth chances, and the knowledge that things weren’t ever going to change, I decided to move on, luckily without a mortgage or dependents that might shackle me to a role.
HR is supposed to be an option, but not always. Manipulative Liar Boss took the credit for my coworkers’ and my achievements. She was so good at upward-managing her own bosses (who thought that the sun shone out of her ass), that she would have turned it around on us, had we gone to HR or a higher power. We just knew she would twist things, and brand us as emotionally weak or incompetent. We ended up quitting, one by one. I still wonder if I should have said something, for the sake of future employees, but sometimes I’ll do anything to keep the peace.
Another time, surrounded by chauvinists, I wrote an official letter to HR and the heads of the organization upon leaving, which did make a difference. Where I’d changed jobs after one year, unable to bear it any more, my successor stayed for three, as they improved the situation. It felt right to say something that time, but it’s not always easy. In tiny companies, there’s sometimes not even an HR department.
If you can effect change without compromising yourself, do. If you can’t, and you can’t change jobs, change your attitude. Whatever you do, don’t complain. Ms Angelou taught us that. I also think about the saying, “This too shall pass.” No matter how soul-destroying, jobs come and go, and these are all character-building experiences.
If you’re an employee going through this right now, know that you’re not alone. Hold out for that great, Brilliant Boss. They do exist. And trust me, how you will be grateful when you find them.
[Image courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures]