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22. How to Handle Your Boss

Have you ever worked for a difficult boss? If not, you're extremely lucky - I suspect there are very few people who go through life without working for at least one person that has driven them, if not crazy, then out of a job. Looking back over the years of my working life I can think of a few. This week's tip is about how to cope with a difficult boss, but the principles may also be helpful for dealing with 'normal' bosses and anyone you find difficult or intimidating. Very many thanks to all of you who responded to my plea for comments, your thoughts were reassuring and helpful, and I shall be working on your suggestions in the autumn. When I first saw Jill Walker's book, Is Your Boss Mad?, I had to smile. There she is on the front cover, the epitome of an employee driven to the brink of despair by the strange antics of someone she has to cow tow to. Because that is what makes the employee-boss relationship so difficult, the imbalance of power. Anyone else acting like a maniac and you can sidestep them, report them, avoid them, laugh about them, confront them. But with a boss you have to keep acting as though they're sane. When you're struggling with a difficult boss, there are two things going on - one is the reality of the situation, what your boss is actually doing and how that impacts your day to day working life. The other is more challenging and is to do with the way they make you feel, and that is often about three years old. It is easy to find perfectly logical reasons why you might be scared of them. They have the power make your life even more unpleasant than they are already doing. They could give you more work, or take work away. They could discipline you. They could give you a bad reference and ensure you never work again. Worst of all, they could sack you. But if you look beyond the logic you will almost certainly find something else going on, and at a much deeper level. Your first boss was probably your mother. Your second, third and fourth bosses were probably fathers, older siblings, or teachers. You had these bosses when you actually were very small. You were also vulnerable and dependent and unable to protect yourself, so had good reason to be frightened. The problem is, that when faced with a boss, you can experience exactly the same feelings as you did back then. Ever wondered why the boss's jokes are so much funnier than anyone else's? Why their ideas are so much better? Why nobody ever questions them? Now you know! Jill Walker's book is subtitled 'The definitive guide to coping with your boss' and that's what I liked about it. The worst thing about having a lousy boss is that you feel totally disempowered. A guide to coping with your boss immediately implies that it is possible, you don't have to just sit there and meekly take whatever they dispense. You can deal with it like the adult you actually now are. Jill Walker describes nine different kinds of boss, far too many to cover here, but in my experience there is one thing that unites mad or bad bosses, and that is fear. The worst kind of boss is a frightened boss. If you've ever worked for a frightened boss (or a difficult boss you never realised was frightened), you will undoubtedly recognise some or all of these features:

  • They think that controlling everything will make them feel more secure.

  • They act in ways to make you frightened. If they're frightened, it makes them feel better if you are too.

  • Because some days they feel frightened and some days they feel fine, they are inconsistent. You never know where you are with them.

  • They work too hard, and expect you to do the same.

  • They have a flight or fight reaction to adverse events - either they get unpleasant, controlling, angry, or they are passive and ineffective. If they can't be good then at least they can be liked, they reason, so they avoid confrontations and difficult decisions.

  • Any loyalty they might have to their staff vanishes at the first sign of trouble.

When you know that your boss is probably as frightened as you it helps you to move out of your three-year-old psyche and into a fully functioning adult. If you have a mad or bad boss..... Try one or more of these: 1.First work out what is real and what is not. What has your boss done exactly and how has that impacted your day to day work? 2.Now look at your reaction to what they've done. Are you objective about the behaviour, or does it make you feel angry, upset, intimidated, small? Do you feel like a child in relation to them? Does this person remind you of one of your parents? A teacher? An older sibling? 3.If your boss has been behaving in this way for a while, one thing is certain, you are somehow maintaining that behaviour. Imagine you could see the two of you on a television screen - how are you maintaining this person's behaviour, and how do your feelings feed into your behaviours? 4.Once you've worked out what you do to keep the system going, it's time to get into adult mode and try something new. Change your behaviours. Lynette Allen of The Women's Coaching Company talks about 'Lioness' behaviours: the queen (or king) of the jungle is calm, walks tall and proud and and believes she deserves to be there. Try behaving like that round your boss and see what happens. Jill Walker says it doesn't matter much what you do as long as it's different. If you normally dress casually, smarten up. If you normally talk a fair bit, quieten down. If you talk high and fast, bring your voice down an octave or two, and talk more slowly.Meanwhile keep your standards up, be punctual, be reliable, meet deadlines. Ask questions. Always a good tactic in difficult situations. If they criticise you, ask them what they would like you to do instead. If they make crazy suggestions, ask them to explain them to you. Ask them what their agenda is right now, what they're worried about, what they're hoping for. Give feedback. Tell them what they have done and how it has affected you. Eg. 'When you shouted at me in the middle of the office I felt humiliated and upset. If you have something to say to me I'd be very grateful if you could do it in private. Stand up to them. When I was a house surgeon, very many years ago, I worked for a consultant ENT surgeon who came in just once a week, to operate. My job was to see his patients the night before and make sure they were fit for surgery. I would then assist him in theatre the following morning. He never said thank you, never taught me anything, and on several occasions he complained about things he thought I should have done, but which he had never asked me to do. One day he was removing the tonsils of a teenage girl. She was bleeding quite profusely and he asked the nurse to see if she was menstruating. She was. He turned to me and said, 'You should have told me, I never operate on girls who are menstruating.' A switch flipped in me at that moment. I said: 'Well, Mr Casey, if you have rules for who you do and don't operate on then it would be helpful if you gave me a list, because, short of being telepathic, I don't see how I am supposed to know.' You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre. The anaesthetist stifled a giggle. Mr Knight said nothing. After that he was always polite, and he never complained again. Jill Walker says of the 'classic bully': 'on every occasion I have confronted this sort of boss they have become completely placid, rolling over like a puppy'. Do let me know how you get on, and have a good week!

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