There’s an old stereotype about woman bosses, which is that they can be really mean, and for some reason women are often the ones to perpetuate this story about female leaders. Personally, I don’t think this is particularly more common – or more important – than male bully bosses. Jerks are jerks and it doesn’t matter what gender they are. I don’t believe that looking for reasons and excuses that somehow explain and try to justify their behavior is a good use of time.
But What If You’re Stuck With One?
Working for, or with, tough people is – tough. You can feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to decide if you are being victimized, complicit or backsliding on your career stuck under someone’s thumb. Working for a toxic boss can really make you feel helpless and like you’re in a no-win situation. And the worst part is that you know others are watching and may be assessing your potential based on how you handle the situation. Learn to handle it well!
Here are some strategies to help you out. The most important thing to do is to notice what’s happening and make conscious choices about how you’ll act. Unconscious reactions are the most effective technique a bully boss has for keeping you off balance.
First, make sure you’re not enjoying and contributing to the fight. Are you part of the problem? Have you caught the virus? Are you being too sensitive? Are you being part of the bully brigade – even unconsciously? Ask the question in the mirror and decide for yourself what to do. If the answer is yes, don’t waste time beating yourself up, just resolve not to play that game anymore. When the boss reaches out, give yourself a moment to compose yourself (walk the long way to their office, breath deeply before returning their call etc.) and start to explore other behaviors and responses when they pick up the phone.
Second, take a hard look at yourself and whether you’re projecting your stuff on them. This can be particularly challenging if your boss is the same gender as you. Does she remind you of a parent or sibling you’re still struggling with? Is she just doing her job with a little less sensitivity than you’d like? Is she fighting dragons you’ve never fought and can’t appreciate? Do you need to find someone to blame and because she’s not a “sister” and confidant, she seems blamable? If you’ve never been in her shoes, considering stepping back and assuming that she must have something to teach you and become determined to figure out what it is. That will help you reorient yourself to her and ignore BS behavior in order to find the nuggets of wisdom and perspective you can learn from her experience.
Third, establish emotional distance. This can be really, really, really, really hard, But honestly, it’s a skill that will come in handy the rest of your career. It’s almost impossible to learn this working for a nice boss, so if you find yourself working for a meanie, buckle down and learn to do it (and then practice it on other meanies in your life). How to do this? Just KNOW that whatever crap she’s yelling at you or whatever passive aggressive behavior you’re tripping over is NOT ABOUT YOU. This can be pretty hard to believe, but practice imagining what else it might be if it’s not about you. If she embarrasses you in front of your team, imagine what mania might be in her head that makes her do that to protect herself from a debilitating fear that you will all see that she isn’t ____ enough. This doesn’t make it right, but if it really isn’t about you (and it’s not if she’s being emotionally abusive) then if you’re getting upset, then you’re the one making it about you. Imagine other people looking at you wondering how you’ll react and know that if you react, then they might believe that your boss is right. But if you don’t react, they can literally SEE that it’s about her. Also, learn release techniques to get rid of anger, fear and guilt, which threaten to build up and stick to you when you’re with people trying to make you feel angry, afraid and guilty.
Fourth, if you find yourself working for a bully boss, you should ask yourself what you’re getting out of the situation and whether it’s worth it to you to stay there. If you think I’m being too extreme to suggest that quitting is the first option, actually, I’m not. You should always ask yourself this, even if you’re working for a great boss. Quite often we undermine our careers by staying too long and when we’re comfortable, or bolting too fast if it’s tough, but offering good growth. If you’re working in a culture that puts up with mean girls (or boys), you’re quite possibly compromising your integrity and values by surviving in that environment, not standing up for yourself often enough, looking the other way when others get screwed, participating in the gossip and undermining behavior so the boss thinks you’re “on her side”, and in the process you’re becoming more like her. If you are getting something out of it – a career experience, expertise or connections – make your decision to stay consciously for those reasons. However do a double check on how you’re acting while you’re there. When you’re complicit in creating or maintaining in a toxic culture, you are often burning bridges you can’t see. By contrast, when you choose to act in integrity in a toxic environment when others behave immaturely, you’re building bridges, some of which will help get you out of there when the time comes.
Fifth, don’t succumb to fear as the reason to stay. When I was working for bully bosses I figured I was gaining experience (I was!), bosses were all like this (they weren’t!) and I didn’t deserve any better (I did!). Then one day I decided I did deserve better. I was accosted by debilitating anxiety as I prepared to leave, discomfort I’d never get another job, fear I’d get a bad name – anxiety, sleepless nights, the whole shebang. But finally I decided it just wasn’t worth it to stay. I just hated myself for putting up with mean bosses too much. And you know what? Once I made that decision (well, twice I had to learn this lesson actually), I started working for good people, people who valued me, people who helped me because they were good people. I wished I’d had the guts to quit long ago. If fear is what holds you there, let it go, know you deserve better and you’ll soon learn that you do.
Sixth, don’t bitch, whine or complain about the boss, whiner and complainer who’s making your life miserable. It’s one way you catch the virus.
You’ll notice a pattern in the strategies above that will help you find your personal power, which is that you need to stop reacting and believe that you have choices in how to respond and react to your terrible boss. Put your resume together. Look at job postings. Network with people that might know about other jobs. Take the time to sketch out your dream job. Make your “top 10 list” for things you’d do right away if you got laid off or quit.
This can be tough, but if you give yourself the option to consider leaving the job, you will immediately start to feel better and more in control (this is strategy #7!). You’ll begin to perceive new options. See them and use them. Even if you don’t end up leaving, know and act as though you have the choice and you’ll be in a stronger position to manage the difficult relationships. And you do have a choice, always. Choice is power and the moment you start making more choices is the moment you become more powerful.