Guest Blog | Survival Tips: Dealing with an Abrasive Boss
If you’re working for an abrasive boss or in a dysfunctional organization, most likely you’re being spoken to and managed in a way that any reasonable person would agree is disrespectful, demeaning, threatening, humiliating and intimidating.
You’re likely to feel stuck in the situation because you need your job and income and you believe it’s risky to complain. You are probably right. For a variety of reasons, it is not unusual for organizations to minimize the abrasive behavior of executives and, in many cases, to ignore and even punish the person who is the target of that behavior if he or she complains.
Here are some tips for getting through these things with your self-esteem and your mental health intact. Some of the strategies are grounded in principles from studies of people who have survived prisoner of war camps and concentration camps (I especially recommend “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl.) It’s about keeping perspective: no matter how bad your situation is, it probably does not rise to the level of mistreatment in a prisoner of war or concentration camp.
The point is, in business and in life, focusing on what you control is a key factor in success and survival. To the degree that you focus on what you do not control, you are more likely to feel victimized, angry, ineffective, incompetent and worst of all, wounded and damaged.
Here are some strategies for getting through an intolerable situation with your mental health and self-esteem intact.
- Find personal meaning. In his book, Victor Frankl talks about a depressed man who could not overcome the loss of his wife. He asked him “What would have happened if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” The man said, “for her, this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Frankl said, “You see such a suffering has been spared her; and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving her and mourning her.” The man shook Frankl’s hand and calmly left his office (Frankl, 1992).
- Build your self-esteem. You are incredibly vulnerable if your self-esteem is overly dependent on whether other people like or respect you. Although they may not like it, the most successful people find ways to tolerate disrespect and keep going. They are firm in their belief in themselves, their skills and outlook on life. Find those people in your company, and ask them how they do it.
- Identify your options. Most people in highly aversive situations have a hard time finding the energy and time to identify and consider their options. Make a commitment to invest 10-15 minutes per day to find out your value in the marketplace and what options you might have. I am not recommending you quit your job. I am recommending that you increase your leverage. Knowing you have options changes how you react to what is directed at you.
- Explore legal options. Sometimes abrasive and dysfunctional behaviors cross over the line into prohibited and illegal territory. The incidences of sexual harassment at Fox News are the most recent, high profile examples. It’s important to determine whether or not what you’re experiencing has, in fact, gone over the line. This is not a recommendation to threaten or sue your company. Knowing that you have legal recourse is another way to increase your sense of standing on solid ground.
- Try not to take it personally. Some of it is culture. I grew up in a loud New York family. For 40 years, I have been working on changing how I disagree or debate because many people experience my tone and directness as disrespectful when it is primarily a learned way of communicating. In her book “Taming the Abrasive Manager,” Laura Crawshaw says that most abrasive managers are like grizzly bears roaming through your campsite looking for food. If you get in their way they are likely to strike out. But there is no intention to hurt you. You just appear to be in the way of their life sustaining search for success and achievement. They only get nasty when they perceive a threat. On the other hand, because of the power imbalance, i.e. the grizzly-bear-boss being able to control your career, it’s entirely understandable how you might feel stuck and helpless. Look around you, are there others being treated the same way? If so, it’s easier to not take the grizzly bear’s behavior so personally.
- Get a consultant or coach. Find someone who can help you develop the interpersonal skills necessary to be effective in hostile work environments. It should be someone who can help you focus on what you can control and on what you can do to minimize the abrasive manager’s and dysfunctional organization’s impact on your self-esteem and career.
To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer: May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Jordan Goldrich is the Chief Operations Officer of CUSTOMatrix, Inc. and a Master Corporate Executive Coach. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Least You Can Do: people skills for the no-bullsh*t manager.