Bosses behaving badly

Maybe it is that very word ‘boss’ – the boss of the department, the boss of the organization, the boss of the team – but it connotes authority and if one isn’t careful to keep appropriate limits, it can result in becoming the boss of you.  When this boss that you work for and support daily, demeans you (or someone else in front of you) or reacts with yelling, unrealistic demands or contempt, it can rock your world.  

And though I have been working for the past 30 years, it never seems to fail – when I encounter this type of ‘boss person’ I am taken aback.   At the same time, since these 30 years have provided numerous examples of bosses behaving badly, my patience for this bullying has been stripped down.  I don’t think anyone should be treated poorly for any reason.  Life is too damn short to stay in toxic situations with toxic people.

Soooo easy to say and not easy to do, you note?  Indeed, you are right, it’s a mess of a situation but you can learn how to maneuver through it.  What I know for sure is that you will not change the bully. You cannot change other people, and you certainly can’t get a toxic boss to applaud your tenacity at staying the course.  This challenging little group to work with, these people with issues, tendencies and insecurities, they have their own path to walk.   The trick is to let go of trying to explain, defend and justify.  The challenge is to leave or find some other way to get out of a bad situation.

When I was in my twenties, my boss asked me to his office and summarily yelled at me and told me I was an idiot.  A report he requested was in numbers and metrics, apparently he expected a different format and thought I would give him a written synopsis.  This was news to me! His anger and confrontation came out of nowhere and I was floored.

He was well known for being difficult, but this was my first exposure to his bullying behavior.  Shocked and humiliated, I simply listened.  I never engaged with him.  I didn’t defend or explain.   I just shut down and noted to myself that it was time to leave this toxic situation and company and move along.  I quickly got another job and resigned this position within weeks.  These were the days before HR was sensitive to this type of behavior and way before there were processes in place to deal with this type of abuse.  So I simply shut down and left.

This behavior is so ‘in your face’ that it can be obvious to decide it’s time to leave.  But there are other types of work encounters that can be just as difficult, and I would argue, have the potential to be more dangerous because they erode your confidence.

As a marketing professional, I have provided consulting services for a variety of companies, some I am familiar with, and some I’m not.  I’m buddies with a friend  I’ve known for quite some time, a professional acquaintance who shares stories and insights with me.  Our relationship isn’t too deep; we stay connected professionally and share some basic and surface level stuff.

She once asked me to come in and work with her team on some marketing projects.  Although overwhelmed raising two young children, I was jazzed.  She would often tell me I was the only one she knew that had the base of experience she needed.  That worked for me, as I love making a difference and working with talent, it’s something that gives me the ‘I’m really contributing’ feeling of accomplishment.

So off I went to work with my buddy.  The first few weeks, all went well; I was in and out, meeting with her team, trying to get my bearings and learn what I could.  It was a slow swirl, but I began noticing a few patterns – there were many executives that had come and gone rather quickly, and the others remaining were immature in process, emotional in reaction and worked at a low level of confidence.

After a meeting here and a meeting there and I started to notice a pattern – oh my word, I realized – she is a bully.  Now this isn’t the tough, demanding, yet respectful, executive that makes things happen.  This executive is a bully.  She is running her company into the ground.  Bit by bit, decision (or none) by decision, opportunities slide away and her team shrugs with ‘well we did the best we could’.  And then the blame game follows, as there is always someone to talk about and always someone to blame, a sure sign of a dysfunctional office.

It’s an early fall morning and seven people get on a conference call to discuss a huge project we have all been working on in some form or fashion.  Virtually everyone has worked three of the four past weekends, we are all tired and looking to get this project complete.

My buddy the CEO gets on the call with a huge ‘tude’.  Her questions regarding a project are thrown over the phone – ‘I have no idea what you guys are doing’ – ‘I don’t understand anything you put together’ – and my personal favorite, ‘no one ever told me this detail and I have no idea what you are talking about’.   As I maneuver us through this mess of a meeting, she starts really focusing in – ‘what I am trying to communicate to you is that you have it all wrong.  What I am trying to help you with is that you guys don’t understand this client or this project and I can’t believe this is what you have developed.’  It gets a bit nastier and pointed and everyone shuts down, not a word is uttered.

We all know that she has seen everything, been involved with all aspects of this project and on this call, blatantly lies to all of us that she hasn’t seen any of the work for this project.  No one does a thing.  

It’s hard to share with you the tone, the push of the words and the combative behavior – suffice it to say that entire group was ready to resign when the meeting was over.  This team had been working with her for over five years.  I discussed this event with a few of the executives and my insistence that this isn’t acceptable behavior is met with apathy – they feel stuck, at a loss as to what to do, her words have unraveled self-esteem and they have hit home.  Their confidence has eroded and self-doubt is prevalent.  

Verbally, emotionally and just shy of physically being abused in a former relationship, my sensitivities to verbal abuse are heightened and my tolerance is low.  Well really, I have no tolerance, but I wanted to finish this damn project because I adhere to standards, and I wanted to be professional and finish my work as promised. And, this project was incredibly important to the company.

I was left with frustration beyond belief, astonishment at how severe this situation was, and empathy for those that feel stuck and those that work with her daily.

From my personal experience, and from all that I have learned, I realize that with anything in life you have to manage, any event or situation, you always have two options:  you can either do something or you can do nothing.  

This I know for sure – if you are engaged in any destructive relationship, doing nothing will pull you down, and if you continue to stay in this destructive pattern, the ole boss will continue his/her course.  They will continue because they can, and because it works for them.

There are so many ways these bosses behaving badly can play out. They seem to fall into a few destructive categories.  With the economy in shambles and fear running high, we might be more apt to just let this go.  If that works, then all is well.  

But just as with fragmented personal relationships, professionally, if your self-esteem is ebbing away and you are feeling stuck, it might help to identify what is happening and look to take some action.

There is the ‘fatal attraction’ boss who is passive aggressive and doesn’t tell you directly what he/she wants, and isn’t clear on communication. Instead, he/she will demean you with snide comments, point out issues in front of others and basically put you down with comments about your work to everyone but you.

Then there is the ‘bullhorn’, the confrontational boss who makes everything, and I mean everything, a challenge.  The ‘what are you talking about’ comment can pretty much sum this one up.  Nothing is easy, and everything is a confrontation.  

The one I have the most experience with is ‘Sybil’ – one day it’s all peaches and roses and the next day you are walking on thin ice and continually scrutinized because you made a mistake or there was a miscommunication. This boss leaves you questioning yourself and your sanity.  If you are asking ‘is it me?’ there is a good chance you are working for a Sybil.

And I could go on. I know there are more than enough examples of difficult types of bosses, but my real agenda is to help you, Mr./Ms. Reader, survive some of these behaviors.   These are five simple rules I use to manage myself through these situations.

Rule Number One:  Know that you can’t change them.  Period.  All the good intentions in the world can’t change someone; their change is their journey.

Rule Number Two:  If you wouldn’t accept this behavior at home, don’t accept it at work.  The money, the job and the prestige are all short lived anyways, because difficult people like this can take you down in a moments notice.  It’s not worth the price you pay; it’s hurtful and destructive to your esteem and to your soul.

Rule Number Three:  This does not define you. Work is a valuable part of our experience but it is not YOU.  If you are too closely aligned with work, then the power this has over you is out of balance.  Keep your sanity, keep yourself in sync with who you are, and know that bad things happening to you do not mean that YOU are bad.

Rule Number Four:  Take care of you as you would a friend.  Often it is easier for us to do something for others than to take care of ourselves. Treat yourself kindly, you are worth it and you are valuable.  No one deserves to be treated poorly.

Rule Number Five:  Fill yourself up with positive – positive people, words, movies, sayings, music, mediations, etc. will all fill your soul and work to balance your esteem.

My huge hope is that there are very few who experience this type of bullying at work, but my guess is that it is more prevalent that most of us know.  Remember that if you are putting good energy after bad, this can trip you up and result in angst, frustration, depression and self-doubt.

If you won’t take care of yourself for you, then do it for me.  And on that note, I resigned from my friends project. Based on her ranting, I knew that five more months of working in that environment would have me throwing my computer out the window Aside from the obvious problems this presented, I love my MAC way too much for that. All rights reserved, Kim Roman

Kim Roman Corle is a coach, speaker and author that helps people learn to ‘Take Their Power Back’.  A verbal abuse survivor, member of ACA, corporate executive, StepMother, StepChild  My work focuses on offering guidance, support and steps that teach people how to manage their emotions. As someone who has learned how to take back her power, I feel there isn’t an audience I don’t relate with.  I look forward to meeting and working with you

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