By Owen Phelps, Pd.D.
Have you ever had one of those bosses with a Jekyll and Hyde personality? One moment he or she is personable. The next moment he or she is frothing at the mouth?
Do you still have one like that now?
Sadly, it’s not unusual. Some people seem to assume that a promotion to an executive office gives you the right to indulge your mood swings and mistreat others. Sometimes a toxic work culture affirms this otherwise despicable behavior.
A short list of dos and don’ts might include the following:
1. Do realize that the problem is not about you – even when it seems to be about you.
If the boss is yelling about something or someone else not related to you, it’s easy to see that you’re not the target – even if the behavior is unsettling. But if the boss is yelling about you or something you’ve done, it’s only natural to take the criticism personally. Don’t.
If the boss is overreacting, it’s likely that you or your performance is only a part of the reason – and maybe only a small part of it at that. Try to focus on the fact that the boss is having a problem, pure and simple. If his or her problem is with your work, don’t get defensive. Apologize and offer to fix or improve it.
2. Remind yourself that you’re a loved child of God no matter what the boss thinks or is saying. Even if you made a mistake – and even if it’s serious – you still have dignity and worth and you are still loved by our Creator.
3. If something you did triggered the boss’ behavior, own up, apologize and offer to fix the problem – even if the boss’ behavior is over the top. Making excuses or otherwise getting defensive is not likely to defuse the situation. If there are conditions beyond your control that need to be addressed to improve your performance, decide to discuss them at a another time when the situation is not so volatile.
4. Do get analytical. Look for patterns.
Does the abusive behavior tend to happen on a certain day of the week? Does it happen at a certain time in the day? Does it happen right after, or before, an important meeting or deadline?
Close observation may not improve the behavior, but that could make it more predictable.
If you can improve your ability to predict your boss’ blowups, you can avoid making requests or dumping problems on him or her at what you know is the worst possible time. Maybe it’s possible to avoid – or at least reduce – all interactions when the boss is most likely to explode.
5. Don’t take it personally.
As we said under point one above, it’s not about you. And even if it is about you, if the boss’ behavior is extreme, it is not only about you. People who engage in outrages are ultimately responsible for them. Try to focus on what the boss is saying, not on how he or she is saying it.
6. Dig for gratitude. Work hard to be grateful for any correction that occurs, even if it was expressed in the worst possible way. If there’s something that will help you, express your gratitude for it and try to focus on truly feeling grateful.
In the article we link to for a longer treatment of this topic, a woman tells the story of an unpredictable boss whose behavior was often out of line. She decided to secretly tape his next outrage to provide to a skeptical friend what a jerk he really was.
But when she listened to the recording she had an epiphany. “I was actually appalled more by myself,” she says. “I couldn’t stand how I was talking and behaving. I was defensive and trying to deflect blame elsewhere.” The lesson: she should be more aware of her own responses and how they might aggravate her boss’s moods.
With that realization she was able better cope with her boss’ volatile moods. Over time she found herself empathizing with him not taking his insults personally. “Today, we get along great,” she says. “He still has the occasional outburst, generally after he’s been chewed out by a client. But now I try to listen to the context and ask myself what he needs.”
7. Look for strength in numbers.
If the boss’ behavior is not just grouchy but truly abusive, try to reach out to others on your team about working together to improve conditions. But move slowly and cautiously. Make sure the people you approach are trustworthy. When there is general agreement among most or all team members that the boss’ behavior is out of line, sometimes that will weigh more on HR officials or others higher up in the chain of command. At the same time, be aware that as you expand the scope of your action, you can increase the personal consequences as well.
8. Set a healthy personal limit.
A brilliant observation about human behavior is made early in the Declaration of Independence: “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
The Founding Fathers were probably paying humanity a compliment – but they were also arguing that at a certain point enough is enough and you have to take action. If a bullying boss is affecting your performance and, perhaps, ruining your life, take it up with the HR department if that is an option.
If at some point the situation truly seems hopeless, don’t settle for feeling trapped. Start looking for another job. You might be pleasantly surprised by your prospects once you put the ogre in your rearview mirror.
For a more comprehensive treatment of this issue by Carolyn O’Hara,
a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review,