Making the Most of a Bad Boss
You can’t change your terrible manager, but there are strategies to keep their negativity from affecting the entire office
So you’ve won the bad boss lottery. Instead of having a respectful superior who treats you like a human being with valid ideas and good instincts, you’re working for a bully. Somebody who treats you like an organ-filled punching bag. Or who has decided, despite vetting and hiring you for the position, that you’re incapable of doing anything right. Maybe you work for a yeller. Or one of those, “I’m talking in an even-toned whisper so you know I am capital-M mad” types. Congrats! You have the worst boss in the world. What an honor.
Admittedly, pretending that having a terror for a boss is a prize does not help make the situation better. But it’s good practice for what experts say you should do in the event you find yourself working for a nightmare: reframe the situation.
In a recent paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, a team of researchers analyzed several studies on what they called “the dark side of leadership,” using the findings to argue that your behavior as an employee is every bit as important in influencing your work experience as your boss’s. In one of those studies, for instance, psychologists examined how qualities like self-esteem can impact an employee’s reaction to having a narcissistic manager.
“Followers with low self-esteem and low core self-evaluations perceived narcissistic leaders as more abusive than those with high self-esteem or high core self-evaluations,” the authors wrote. “Abusive supervision perceptions, in turn, related to lower follower performance and higher experiences of burnout.” In other words, if your boss is treating you like dirt, your personality and your interpretation of that treatment might be making you feel even worse than you need to.
“You basically have three choices. You can do nothing. You can leave. Or you can try to adjust.”
This is where the reframing comes into play. “When you’re working with such a person, to oversimplify it, you basically have three choices,” says organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, whose book, Insight, tackles self-awareness in the workplace. “You can do nothing. You can leave. Or you can try to adjust or change the way you’re seeing the situation and the way you’re behaving in the situation.”
Since option two likely isn’t viable — if you are in a position where you can just up and quit every job where you clash with the boss, you’re one of a lucky few — and option one sounds unsustainable, that leaves option three: changing yourself. Or pretending you’ve changed until that new you becomes your new normal.
That doesn’t mean you should just meekly accept abuse; if your boss’s behavior is impeding your ability to do your job or affecting your mental health, you can and should get human resources involved. But for lesser, garden-variety bad-boss offenses, it helps to keep things in perspective: “Remind yourself that this job is a blip on the radar. Your career is going to last way longer than your time working for this person,” Eurich says. “Then change your mindset.”
Eurich recalls a time where she was working for a particularly wretched supervisor and found herself inspired by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where a laugh track accompanied everything that Moore’s similarly terrible boss did onscreen. In the same way, Eurich says, she tried to keep a sense of humor about her own situation. “I was actually surprised at how effective it was,” she says. “Obviously, it didn’t work 100 percent of the time, but it did make his behavior more tolerable.”
You don’t have to go through it alone, either; assuming your boss’s actions are affecting more people than you, unite with your co-workers to boost workplace morale. The most important thing you can do is easy, at least in theory: Make a concerted effort not to vent about your boss with colleagues, says Peter Bregman, CEO of the management consultancy Bregman Partners and author of Leading With Emotional Courage. Instead of suffering in silence the next time you’re on the receiving end of your manager’s anger, use your colleagues for emotional support — and make it clear that you’re available for them, too — but make sure that emotional support doesn’t take the form of trash talking.
“Talking about the boss with each other behind the boss’s back ultimately isn’t productive,” Bregman says. “It might make everybody feel better in that moment, but it emboldens you in a way that likely won’t end well.”
Plus, Bregman explains, if all that’s bonding you and your co-workers is a mutual hatred for upper management, you probably aren’t all that well-bonded to begin with. “Morale developed at the expense of anybody, even your jerk of a boss, tends to be very thin morale,” he says. Instead,“defy the boss by not talking about them.” Rather than wasting time complaining — which only extends the reach of the boss’s negativity — focus your efforts on keeping things positive with your colleagues.
Still, if it seems impossible to avoid blowing off steam, Eurich proposes a modified approach to venting: “If the boss is rude and mean, instead of going over to your colleague and saying, ‘Did you hear what she did?!’ say, ‘Hey, so this happened — do you have any advice? How would you have handled this differently?’” That way, you can gain some useful insight to apply the next time you find yourself on the receiving end of an insult or pile of grunt work. Plus, when you talk about your boss behind their back, you always run the risk of it getting back to them. With this strategy, if that does happen, you’re covered.
As for things to do on your own, Bregman is a big believer in cultivating a meditation habit to cope with work-induced anxiety. The ability to calm your own mind, he explains, “is really useful in situations where people, like your boss, might be knocking you off your center and you need to find a way to stay balanced.” Eurich recommends anticipation: learn what sets your boss off and then avoid those triggers. Keep mental notes on when your boss seems to be having a particularly bad day. Avoid recreating those scenarios, if you can.
She also suggests keeping as much about yourself private as possible. “Don’t give them any more ammunition. If you have a real sociopathic boss, they will look for that information and use it to hurt you,” she explains. “That means no information about your weaknesses, like don’t tell your boss you feel insecure about your public speaking skills. Don’t give them any room to get you on things like that.”
If you’ve only got the mental energy to work on one thing, both Bregman and Eurich emphasize the importance of confidence — and of faking confidence when you don’t really feel it. “Stay in control. Stay calm when they’re being horrible to you. Own your space. Stand up straight,” Eurich said. “Speak in a calm, deep voice, and don’t allow your nonverbal behavior to further incite their wrath.” Even if you feel the opposite of confident in the moment, wait until you’re far away from your boss — back in your cubicle, surrounded by strangers on the subway, or in the safety of your own home — to embrace those feelings. Your boss will, hopefully, treat you better for it.