Bad boss hell - roller coaster
Illustration: Marisa Marchetto
If coming to the office every day feels like entering a war zone (with a crazy person as your commander in chief), you might want to ask yourself four crucial questions. The answers could save your career—or jump-start a whole new one.
About a year ago, I bumped into a friend whose daughter, Amanda, used to drive me a little crazy when she was in high school. Not because she committed any of the typical teenage transgressions but because she was perfect. She got great grades, made captain of two teams, played violin in the school orchestra, and was completely down-to-earth and cheerful to boot. So it was with trepidation, as the mother of mere mortals, that I asked after this girl—by then a college graduate working at a well-known company.

“Oh my God, she is terrible,” came the grief-stricken reply. “Her life is in ruins. She has a bad boss.”

Instantly, my heart broke for Amanda. She had joined the ranks of humankind.

“Well, it happens to all of us,” I told her mother sadly.

“I know—I went through it,” she said with a sigh. “But I just quit and married Bill. Amanda doesn't have a Bill. She has only herself.”

Exactly. Some of the most successful careers I've seen have been born of women who overcame one of life's scariest job situations, the very bad boss. The experience changes you, but it can also help you become more at home—and at peace—with yourself and your work.

That may sound Pollyanna-ish. I know bad bosses can make each day feel like a little battle for your soul, but my research into women's careers has convinced me that there is a viable road from office hell to happy ending. It's not an easy process—it requires focusing more time and attention on a very frustrating situation and, hardest of all, taking yourself out of the vortex of victimhood.

Yes, victimhood. Because I would make the case that bad bosses are a choice. They can put your “life in ruins,” to quote Amanda's mother, only if you let them. To prevent that, you can start by answering four questions.

This question requires an unnatural act: a brutally candid conversation with yourself. Bad bosses obviously exist, but most managers are not critical, bullying, or withholding with people they like and respect. If your boss is being a jerk to you, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself if there is something about your performance or attitude that is engendering the behavior.
Start with the monster in the middle of the room—your results. If you're not performing up to expectations, even if you believe something outside your control is to blame, know that your boss has had to explain your underperformance to his bosses, an unpleasant experience that can quickly turn to resentment toward you.

Next you need to double-check your self-examination by tactfully extracting information about your performance from your boss. Prepare to be shocked. I once had a coworker with tremendous results who complained to our boss that she felt underappreciated. She emerged from the meeting reeling. “He said I lied to him three years ago,” she said, “about a little thing on my expense account. He never forgave me.”

On the other hand, you might come out of your review having been told that your performance is acceptable. He may even say he likes you, and be completely unaware that his disorganization or temper is a problem for you. Nevertheless, you've confirmed that your boss's behavior is not about you. He or she is just a bad boss, and you must ask the following question...

In other words, how much do you trust your company's senior executives and human resource managers? If they're any good, they know about your bad boss and are working on an exit strategy. All you need to do is keep your head down and wait patiently. This process always takes longer than everyone wants, so you'll have to fight the completely human urge to form a cabal with your coworkers to bitch about the situation. Complaining will only drain and distract you. Instead, focus on the work and keep a positive attitude. That will hold you in good stead with the higher-ups when your boss (finally) moves on.

It's a different situation entirely if your company appears to tolerate destructive behaviors. Too many companies turn a blind eye to difficult managers as long as they're delivering the numbers. A friend of mine was an analyst at an investment firm where the manager of her 60-person department routinely screamed at people for “incompetence.” Even though his rages were widely known, the CEO of the company often singled him out for praise on his financial results. It was clear he wasn't going anywhere but up.

If that sounds familiar, it's time for a serious career evaluation. 

The simple answer is no. I don't know anyone who likes the idea of giving half her waking hours, if not more, to an organization she doesn't respect. Most people realize (sooner or later) that it's time to start looking for a new job.

This is hard to accept, and it's tempting to consider the infamous end run: complaining to your boss's boss. I don't necessarily recommend that choice. Given the way most companies work, this option will fail 80 to 90 percent of the time, and will likely lead to your own demise, if only in slow motion. (If you're determined to go over your boss's head, have a job offer elsewhere ready.)

Whether you leap or get pushed, leaving your company will be hard. But it can open up surprising opportunities, as it did for a single mother I met four years ago. She had supported herself and her son as a hairdresser for nearly a decade, until one day, pummeled into a depressed mess by an abusive boss, she quit. Broke and living in her former stepfather's basement, she started a knitwear company that just earned its first million dollars. “My bad boss was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said, “because he forced me to create a life for myself that makes me proud.”

Too often, however, the answer to the question, “Do I want to work at my company?” is anything but simple: Your job may be the only game in town. Or it pays you too well to leave. Or it gives you the flexibility you need to take care of your kids. If so, there is one thing left to ask.... 

By the time most people hit 25, they've come up with a single password that gets them into everything from their bank account to their e-mail box. If you decide to stay with a bad boss, you need to come up with a password that lets you into an emotional place where you do not ride your bad boss experience like a roller coaster every single day.

A friend who worked at an intensely political company once ended up working for a man who ardently wanted him to fail so his own guy would get ahead. After a few months of punching the dashboard of his car every morning, my friend's password became “Deliver and this will pass.” For three years, during every grueling day, he stayed focused on building his own team's morale and new product innovation, not his boss's scrutiny. It worked: He was promoted to another division (and a good boss).

I myself had one terrible boss, who was moody and secretive. My password became “You cannot have it all, all at once.” My job had enormous flexibility. I got through the rough weeks by reminding myself that by staying, I was able to be a better, more present mother. It didn't make me like my boss, but it made me tolerate her, a much more sustainable emotional alternative.

With a password, you may still have bad days, but you will have taken yourself out of the vortex of victimhood. This brings me back to Amanda, the young woman whose life had been thrown into disarray by a bad boss. She's still at the same company, working for the same person. “But you'll never believe it,” her mother told me recently, “things are really looking up.”

I do believe it. Back in the days before Amanda bumped into messy reality (as we all eventually do), she had believed the future was hers for the making. No doubt there was now a dent in that youthful optimism, but Amanda's perseverance could mean only one thing. She had made a choice: No one could take her happiness, or her success, away.

Read more of Suzy Welch's smartest advice to get ahead at work


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