I had several different bosses during the early years of writing ‘Dilbert.’ They were all pretty sure I was mocking someone else.
– Scott Adams
Every evening, all around the world, we come home from work, greet our partners, our kids, and have discussions. Discussions in the kitchen, at the dinner table, and before we go to bed.
Sometimes the topic is school grades, or upcoming trips, or what to bring to the Lowenstein’s barbecue. But often the subject of these discussions is the companies we work for, our colleagues, and our bosses. It’s long been known and understood that the quality of our work culture and our relationship with our bosses can affect our moods, our sense of optimism or despair at work, and even our health.
Toxic work environments, and in particular cruel bosses, have been linked to hypertension, elevated blood pressure, and even heart attacks. One woman I worked with in recent years had kidney stones clinically attributed to the stress of her work environment.
Toxic bosses are also responsible for the disposition of entire teams when they single out individuals for criticism. When a boss quietly and privately pulls someone aside to deliver critical or disparaging feedback, that individual absorbs the critical evaluation and then infects the rest of the team. According to recent studies replicated with teams in China and the United States, each individual criticized then becomes toxic and divisive to other team members. It’s true that asshole poisoning is contagious.
Seven in ten Americans say bosses and toddlers with too much power act similarly. In one study, 345 white-collar office workers described the most abusive and disruptive bosses in their lives as self-oriented, stubborn, overly-demanding, interruptive, impulsive, and prone to throwing tantrums.
Jujitsu: the use of the strength or weakness of an adversary to disable him.
If you work for a bosshole, try a few jujitsu tricks to use their own power against themselves.
Give Them Credit
If you have a boss who needs to be ‘right’ all the time, let them. I don’t mean to suggest you let them sabotage the project by pushing it in a ridiculous direction, but rather practice deep listening. Listen carefully to their ideas, and reiterate them back carefully to clarify what you heard. In the retelling they may, or may not, understand the fallacy of their reasoning. But either way, they were heard and acknowledged.
Bring Them Down to Earth
If you have a boss who paints grand visionary ideas without understanding the detail and the effort involved, ask them to get granular. Let them understand how their great sweeping vision plays out at the execution level of technology, marketing, and product re-design. Ask them who, specifically, they envision doing this work? What resources might need to be made available to cover contingencies, or hire outside help? By helping them understand the real effort involved, they will likely either abandon their idea, or roll up their sleeves and help. Probably the former.
Help Their Incompetence
It happens. Probably too often someone gets promoted to their level of incompetence. They are in over their head and resort to low level management tactics like examining the smallest detail, or scheduling meaningless meetings with no agenda. They are in the weeds. Help them. I know it hurts to think about it, but if you help guide their efforts, communication and help refocus their time and energy they will become an ally, and likely support your initiatives next time you suggest something.
Shawn Hunter is the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive awesome results.