Is That Pain In Your Neck — Your Boss?

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I am thankful for all the difficult people in my life; they have shown me exactly who I do not want to be. ~ Author Unknown

Note to Readers: I am back after a lengthy hiatus. This past spring my husband, Ted, and I decided to sell our home and move on to the somewhat easier condo life. We’ve been empty-nesters for awhile and it is time. We quickly became overwhelmed with the monumental task of going through several lifetimes of “stuff” we had accumulated! What we thought would take a few weeks wound up taking months! We’re still in the process (and I’ll be sharing some insights about the experience in a future post).  Meanwhile, I’ve missed blogging and hope you will forgive me for the lapse. So now, onward!

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Earlier this year I posted, That Pain In Your Neck Might Not Be Your Boss, and I promised to follow up later with a post that dealt with what to do when that pain in your neck is your boss. Here it is:

When my daughter was in college she told me that she was appreciative of every “bad” teacher and professor she ever had because they taught her what kind of an educator she did not want to become. Fortunately, she reports that she had more good teachers and professors than bad; and while she treasured the former she learned many valuable lessons about how to work with people from the latter.

From Dysfunctional To Dark

According to a Binghamton University study, “Bad bosses generally come in two forms. There are the dysfunctional ones, like Michael Scott from the TV series The Office; then there are the dark ones, like Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street.” (Links are mine.)

Whichever type of toxic boss you have, he — and sometimes she — can hamper your ability to work productively and cheerfully at your job and advance in your career. And according to several studies, a toxic boss can literally cause that pain in your neck as well as other physical and mental health issues.

It’s not always possible to avoid working for a toxic boss and if that’s the case the choice for the time being might be to learn to cope. And coping with, rather than attempting to change, your boss’s behavior should be the goal. It’s a mental health professional’s job to help a patient change destructive behaviors; your job as an employee is to learn to manage up. The trick is to take some control of the situation without riling Mr. or Ms. Toxic (somewhat like the care that is taken in removing asbestos so as not to disturb it and sending its damaging fibers airborne).

Problems and Solutions

Let’s look at a few of the problem traits of toxic bosses and solutions for coping:

The Problem: Poor Communicator – Ironically, the ability to communicate both orally and in writing is one of the top skills that employers seek in a candidate. Yet, many companies hire or tolerate managers that cannot communicate the simplest messages to their staff members. Such a manager can be quick to berate a clerk or intern for not taking a complete phone message while she herself regularly miscommunicates crucial information and delivers garbled instructions to her team.

The Solution: Take The “Bull” By The Horns – First, take a moment to learn exactly where and why the disconnects in communications are occurring between you and your boss. A poor communicator might deliberately try to confuse an issue — or confuse the team — through her communications (sometimes on orders from the top of the house). Another type might simply be a disorganized thinker who doesn’t make an effort — or know how — to improve. Both types issue a lot of “bull.” The former might reflect a poorly and unethically managed company; the latter could be the solely responsible party.

Second, compare your communication style with your boss’s and try to read her “shorthand” and accommodate — or compensate for — her style. As a former executive assistant, I learned to understand my various bosses’ styles of communication; it was like learning another language but once I did I could decipher the information I was receiving and ask the pertinent questions required to fill in the blanks. Once you master those skills you will be able to approach your boss more confidently and pose relevant and succinct questions. After awhile, your boss might start relying on you to transcribe her directives to the rest of the team, increasing your value all around.

The Problem: Divisiveness – Another trait that employers value is the ability to lead a team as well as work within one. After all, an organization is one big team that contains many smaller teams. But a toxic manager tends to pit team members against each other to create chaos and uncertainty, believing that he has more control over a divided rather than a united team.

The Solution: Unite Rather Than Divide – To counter a boss that is a divider, simply do the opposite: unite your coworkers and strengthen the team — it’s the old safety in numbers theory. If the team is stronger, happier and more productive working with you than with the boss, you will gain some power. Set an example by being a dedicated team member or empathetic team leader, helpful to everyone, even if it appears that one or more of the team is working against you. You can be a bridge over troubled waters without being a doormat. Be firm, but also be pleasant and professional. Give credit to others when and where it is due — including to your boss — but don’t be afraid to take credit yourself when appropriate. Don’t take the bait if the boss tries to pit a coworker against you or vice versa. Stay one step ahead in your strategy, and stay away from the drama and above the fray.

The Problem: Narcissism – Being self-aware means knowing your strengths and weaknesses, admitting mistakes, accepting responsibility for your own and your subordinates’ errors, and making the effort to correct and improve. The narcissist, however, believes that she is superior to and more valuable than all others and thus cherishes and protects herself over her team members, company and industry. Such a manager routinely fails to take responsibility for her shortcomings and is quick to criticize and blame others. She lacks empathy and sensitivity and will grab credit for others’ ideas and achievements without batting an eyelash. She craves constant attention and praise and thrives on goading, shaming, embarrassing and humiliating others. But underneath all the swagger lies a delicate ego and thin skin that cannot take a whisper of criticism or judgment. The narcissistic boss is unable to lead, influence or motivate; rather she will use intimidation, fear and bullying as the tools of her trade. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that narcissism is considered to be a mental disorder closely associated with sociopathy.

The Solution: Stay Calm and Carry On – You have your short- and long-term job and career goals to manage. Viewing your narcissistic boss as merely an obstacle to work around or remove from your path can put coping with her in perspective. Remaining calm when you are under attack will remove some of her power and provide you with increased control. Respond to unreasonable criticism or accusations with a cool head and cold facts. I like the techniques offered by Clinical Psychotherapist Karen Arluck in this Forbes article; among them, setting boundaries is extremely important. When the boss’s behavior becomes intolerable — such as if she crosses certain lines or engages in clear illegal or unethical actions then it’s time to take a stand.  And I repeat: remain calm — never lose your cool or control. The times I have lost my cool it felt so satisfying and in some cases even heroic; other times I maintained my cool, control and dignity. Overall, the latter approach usually produced better outcomes.

The Problem: Insecurity and Paranoia – An insecure boss has trust issues and tends to be paranoid, seeing plots in the most innocent or innocuous words and actions. He will over-react to situations and strike back viciously and vindictively to those who he is jealous of or feels threatened by. His mood swings can be sudden and dramatic. One comment or look can set him off. For example, receiving praise and rewards by his superiors will put him in a generous mood; but if his subordinates are praised by the higher-ups or receive recognition for anything, he might perceive those subordinates as enemies and his mood can shift swiftly, causing those around him to perpetually walk on eggs.

The Solution: Include and Support – Keep your boss in the loop as much as possible, and ask his advice and opinions frequently.  Give him credit publicly and thank him for his support and guidance. No need to be obsequious — in fact, that would work against your relationship with such a boss and damage your brand and reputation; just be genuine and reassuring. Demonstrate that you have his back (as you should) and that you are loyal and trustworthy and have no political shiv up your sleeve. Be professional, do your job well and avoid saying anything that could possibly be construed as a betrayal. That means keep your career plans to yourself, do not boast about your accomplishments or gossip about him. In short, don’t do anything to make your boss feel threatened or insecure.

In Summary…

My experiences working for many managers over four decades and across multiple industries and companies have included a few toxic bosses of varying degrees. As I mentioned, my approaches have ranged from the extreme and combative — which usually do not work for the long haul (although a knock-out punch to one’s tormentor can carry a certain temporary satisfaction) to the carefully planned and executed professional managing-up approach, which can sometimes alleviate a tricky situation and might even result in a promotion or transfer to a better situation.

Or, in some cases your toxic boss might simply get fired, or for other reasons depart, and everyone can break out the party hats.

Fire the Boss Or Risk Losing Talent

According to HR Group Management Consultants in Alberta, Canada, the number one reason managers are fired is due to their inability to manage their people appropriately. And a 2009 Deloitte report on retaining employees as the economy improves states: “Managers need to focus on how they treat their employees because employees’ satisfaction with their supervisors is negatively related to employee turnover.” Supporting this theory is a more recent Forbes article, entitled, “People Leave Managers, Not Companies,” that is directed toward employers and managers.

Often when interviewing and hiring, many companies focus on a manager’s technical skills, background and what the candidate can contribute to the bottom line — all to the exclusion of a manager’s emotional intelligence skills. This approach misses a prospective manager’s possible toxicity and overlooks the fact that getting to that bottom line means hiring a manager that can motivate and inspire a team of talented professionals to outperform. Because chasing away such talent erodes the bottom line.

And chasing away talent is precisely what many managers do. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article the reason the best and the brightest leave an organization is due to how they are managed and how their strengths are used effectively. An inc.com 2017 article cites a Gallup poll that found that “75 percent of the reasons people quit come down to their managers.”

On the other hand, companies will keep certain toxic managers because they are perceived to be doing exactly what the company wants them to do: hiring the best talent and producing the results the company wants. If the talent tolerates the boss, he will likely stay on unless he gets a better offer and leaves.

There are also those rare occasions when there is a breakthrough in a relationship and you discover that your boss has some redeeming qualities that might neutralize the toxicity to a tolerable point.

The Big Picture

If you have had it with your toxic boss, take a look at the big picture before you walk. Are you working for a company that others would kill to work for? Are you making a great salary that would be hard to match elsewhere? Do you have outstanding benefits — healthcare, flex time, advancement opportunities, tuition reimbursement, travel opportunities, a generous IRA and retirement benefits, an expense account to entertain clients, vacation time, child-care options, etc.? If you have none of these, or they do not compensate for the toxicity your boss doles out, or your health truly is at risk because of your job, then it is time to look elsewhere for work, either inside or outside your company and possibly your industry.

The bottom line is that your current job satisfaction and possibly future career success are for the moment directly tied to your relationship with your immediate manager. Knowing when to stay and how to cope — as well as when to call it a day — can relieve that boss-pain in your neck and smooth the way to your future success and happiness.

Until next time,

Jeanne

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