This morning over breakfast, a wonderful woman I've just recently met was telling me about an epiphany she'd had a number of years ago during an interaction with a business coach. The coach had given her some feedback in a way that was actually anti-helpful. And that moment my new friend thought, I could learn how to do this same thing — and do it right. That insight catalyzed her into getting an executive coaching certification and ultimately transitioning from marketing into HR.
And we started talking about how to turn negative experiences into positive ones, and I began telling her about a truly bad boss I had, many years ago — and what I learned from that experience. She said, "You should blog about that." So here we are.
I wrote a post a few months back called "How to Handle Having a Bad Boss," where I proposed four options: changing the boss, changing the company, adapting or leaving. But sometimes you can't do any of the first three and it takes a while to figure out how to do the fourth.
So, for as long you're stuck with a bad boss, how do you deal with it in the best possible way? Most of us handle it badly: we cycle down into anger, resentment, or depression, and we act out by bitching and moaning and/or indulging in petty sabotage ("Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't understand that you were asking me to code each of your documents with a different color. I thought you wanted me to put them all in different folders…"). Which can be momentarily satisfying, but in the long run just makes everything worse.
So, here's how to make a silk (or at least polyester) purse from the sow's ear that is a bad boss:
1. Learn what not to do. My worst boss was the one I had just before I started my own company. I knew that was what I wanted to do next. So every time he did something short-sighted, small-minded, wrong-headed, controlling, I'd take a deep breath and think to myself, I will never do that when I'm a CEO, or I will never treat an employee of mine that way. It was almost magical at times, the way it changed my mental and emotional state — it shifted me from frustration and anger about what he was doing, toward curiosity about how I could avoid doing the same thing in the future.
Curiosity is a wonderful, positive state, full of synaptic firing and exploration. I sometimes actually found myself taking notes about how I would avoid making the mistakes and bad calls he was making. And I discovered I didn't have to wait till I actually started my own company; I applied my what-not-to-do learning immediately, with the people I managed at his company. I still find myself occasionally making a decision about how to proceed by thinking (over 20 years later) What would he have done? and then doing the opposite.
2. Sift for truth. Even terrible bosses are right sometimes. It's easy, when someone's mostly lame, to assume they're entirely lame. With another bad boss I had, almost 30 years ago, I used to make a kind of game of sifting out the gold from the dross. If I could find one useful, smart, or insightful thing my boss did or said on a given day, I'd consider it a win. Again, it shifted my mindset away from how goofy (and irritating) he generally was, toward how brilliant he could be. It allowed me to regain some respect for him (which I'm sure he felt, and which I believe affected his behavior toward me in a positive way), and I actually ended up learning a lot.
3. Develop a teflon shield. I've been fortunate in only having had one truly mean boss for one six-month period in my whole career (I saw him for what he was, and got out of there as quickly as I could.) This guy was really bad. I decided that the only way I could keep from being emotionally damaged, during the remaining weeks or months we had together until I could find a new job, was to figure out how to become impervious to his negative, critical, insulting remarks. That was hard for me; I'm emotionally sensitive by nature, and — like most people — I wanted my boss' approval and respect.
I was able to do two things that really helped shield me from his awfulness. First, I told myself every day, as a kind of mantra, This isn't about me, it's about him, which I knew was true: he was a very angry, insecure person, and he treated nearly everyone badly. He was saying critical things to me not because they were accurate, but because he felt compelled to be critical.
The second thing I did was rely even more than usual on the positive relationships in my life. I tried to spend as little time as possible talking about my boss with the people I loved — I didn't want to chew up that precious time in the momentum of complaint — but really focused on doing and talking about things that we loved and that reminded me of all things I cherish in relationship — affection, mutual support, clear communication, fun. It served as a daily cleansing — like washing his negativity off me with clear, fresh water.
Please understand I'm not recommending staying in a horrible boss situation any longer than you absolutely have to; these ideas aren't intended as long-term solutions. Think of them as you would putting the 'donut' spare tire on your car: they're only meant to last till you can get it to the mechanic and have a real tire put on. But when you run into trouble on the highway — literally or metaphorically — it's good to have something to see you through.