I have the worst luck when it comes to landing bad bosses.
Jennifer Aniston’s character in Horrible Bosses has nothing on the people I’ve worked for. After selling my house and car, packing up all of my earthly belongings, and moving overseas to one of the most inhospitable places on earth, my first boss greeted me by saying, “Don’t f— this up,” and then gave me a lecture that I still don’t remember because I was still stuck on the first sentence. He would pass right by me in the tiny office and refused to speak to me or acknowledge my existence for three months. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by office gossips who behaved like they were still in middle school. It was the height of discomfort.
My second boss was incompetent and knew it. He was terrified that everyone would see through him, so he hid in his office and only came out to berate his staff or use the bathroom. That guy couldn’t run an operation to save his life. It was clear to me that his behavior was based on deep insecurity and fear. I didn’t know whether to hate him or feel really sorry for him.
The third boss wasn’t horrible, he just wasn’t accessible. He seemed to have no real leadership qualities. He was cold and stiff, but I was thrilled to have him. I felt like I had won the lottery.
Finally, after all of that suffering, I was placed in a group with two female bosses that were great. But they were quickly overshadowed by one guy in the chain-of-command that lied and cheated and seemed to get away with all kinds of offenses that–if it were me—would have landed me in jail. In one situation, I refused to partner with him in a lie. When he couldn’t get me in trouble with my immediate bosses, he turned around and gave my partner a horrible performance review to make up for it. We both knew it was coming, but we felt we were ethically right and were ready to bear the consequences for our decision.
Then my fortune finally turned and I had a series of wonderful bosses who mentored others, gave their staff opportunities to grow, and looked after people who showed talent and drive. Hallelujah!!!!
Surviving such an unfortunate string of bad bosses was a character building exercise that I would have preferred to skip. I don’t pretend it’s easy. It may be one of the hardest things you do, so here’s my survival guide for dealing with the narcissists and big egos:
◦ You can’t change the circumstances, but you can change the way you respond to them. They sneered at me, I greeted them warmly. Each day I walked in the office, I felt like doo-doo, but I put a smile on my face, worked hard, and put forth the best effort I could. I took the high road and refused to let them believe they were impacting my life. I wanted to show them that they couldn’t steal my faith, my purpose, or my joy.
◦ Learn how to channel the icky stuff. I learned how to channel my energy when I felt overwhelmed and frustrated. Exercise is extremely useful when you have no hope of altering the outcome of a situation. I used to imagine this one guy’s head on the punching bag, and I kicked the heck out of that thing. I always felt physically and emotionally better after those workouts.
◦ Put your head down and become the expert. While bad bosses and terrible colleagues are busy creating their own dramas, put your head down and become the best accountant, analyst, bookkeeper, teacher, or salesperson there ever was. Use the time to focus on learning your job and taking your expertise to the next level. While they are mired in conflict, you will speed ahead and leave them all in the dust.
◦ Take the long view of life. Tactically they won small victories, but it was me that won in the long view of life. I hate to say it because I certainly don’t wish it on anyone, but the seeds you plant will come back to you in spades—either good or bad. One boss lost his whole family (extremely ugly divorce), the other has a hugely dysfunctional family with a child in prison and a wife that won’t speak to him, another had a child out of wedlock and had to scrape together to get through the situation…and the sad list goes on.
We want to think we can change our situations, but I’ve been there and I know that’s not always possible. Sometimes we are mired in the muck longer than we would like. I’ve lived to tell the tale and so will you. I promise you will come out on the other end.