Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Jun 10, 2005

First I was Afraid. I was Petrified.

Session 1: Surviving the Boss Instructor: Caroline Bender

Occasionally, students ask, "How do you manage to survive so many horrible bosses?” “Survive” bears defining here, and we do so broadly. Certainly I have outlasted many, I have demoted a few; but I have also been transferred out from under them, and more than once chosen to move on because of them. The thing to underscore is that I have never been fired, in spite of some real incompatibilities and misuses of power.

Boss-by-boss, each battle seems unique, but I have identified some commonalities that can serve as guidelines for your survival. Preparing this lecture, I realized it is the same strategy that saw me through grade school, high school, college and graduate school. Building your bank of credibility creates a professional nest egg you will draw on in these hard times. Like your 401K, you must start fresh with each employer, but take advantage of rollover opportunities where you can.

The strategy requires you to reorient the way you think about your situation, and this is the hardest step in the process. But once you embrace the following premise, the rest of the steps are merely building blocks on one foundation…

Your Boss must earn the right to have someone as incredible as you on staff.

Let’s spend a few moments on this, because this can be difficult to absorb if you have thus far been operating under a cloak of oppression. When you have a horrible boss, it is human nature to get dragged down by the constant reminders of how worthless you are and begin to believe it. In fact, what you should most definitely not do is waste your time yearning for the affection and respect of someone you can’t actually stand, much less respect or admire. Instead, devote your energy to proving to yourself and everyone around you that your boss does not deserve you.

Make no mistake: these are serious headgames. This is advanced level course work here. But if you have read this far you have been the victim long enough. Show people an all-star and they will believe you are one.

True, sometimes this glow comes at a price. A truly sick Boss can turn this star power back on themselves and decide their awful management “techniques” brought this shine out in you. Let them believe it. Once they do, they will certainly never let you go – why you’re practically a reflection of themselves! This lesson is about surviving. Not winning.

When you accept the security that comes with not needing the Boss’s affection, it can no longer be withheld as a threat or a punishment. Now you slowly begin to turn the tables through the following activities. They are not necessarily “stages,” as they must all be ongoing, but each depends on the one before it being firmly in place in order to take hold itself. Embark on this quest with impressing the Boss as the last thing on your mind. She will sense your indifference right away, but have no grounds for complaint.

Be very very good at your job
Perform very well at your assignments, and show off every extraordinary work habit. Develop these if you don’t have them already. In the business world, presentation is everything, so present yourself as a consummate professional. Show up where you are expected on time – early is even better. Dress for work. Deliver what’s expected. Never miss a deadline. Read material before discussing it. Focus your attention on the speaker. Present information in a confident tone of voice at an interesting pace. Say “Good Morning” instead of “hi.” Keep your desk clean and well-stocked. This all actually intimidates people.

Be a good soldier
Soldier. Not martyr. Not messiah. It comes from the word for mercenary, and its Latin root soldum means “pay.” The good soldier earns her keep and carries her weight. Don’t shirk your duty. Develop a reputation as a person who delivers -- in spite of the mayhem, the disorganization, the lack of resources, the Crazy Boss. Everyone close to your sphere will be heard to comment, “I don’t know how she does it.”

Be generous with praise and credit
Always say thank you, in a way that becomes an ordinary aspect of your work habits. In business, this is best demonstrated by thinking like a mini-manager of your peer group and treating them with the respect and appreciation their Crazy Bosses do not. You gain the most ground by doing this through emails – again, because most people won’t. It is difficult, and time-consuming, and so very Dickensian in its business formality. Avoid any appearance of taking credit for another person’s work (it goes without saying that you never would). The worker with a strong and vocal fan base is rarely let go. And you know it as well as I do.

Perfect the humble apology
And try to mean it. But even if you can’t mean it, deliver it sincerely anyway. When you make mistakes, acknowledge them. Correct them and make amends if necessary. Most people find the apology, like the thank you, too humiliating to utter. They can not imagine standing hat in hand in front of a peer, the CEO, or the Boss they loathe and asking for forgiveness. The fact that you can do it will give you near superhuman strength in others’ eyes.

Make high-ranking friends
The ideal ally is your Boss’s boss, to the point of making her wonder what she needs your Boss for. Your exemplary work habits, devotion to duty, generous collegiality and accountability will win the attention of other managers (who, we remember, probably don’t like your Boss anyway). At best, you may get a better job offer out of it; at the very least you gain the allies who will back you up in a fight.

Trade in information
In the context of this lesson, “information” does not mean gossip (in other lessons… it most certainly will). Here we mean real information which is of use to your allies. Never spread lies, never break confidences, never mis-inform (you are an exemplary employee, after all). “Here’s a tip for you” is an opener that always gets attention. You need not request anything in return, but you nearly always will get it.

Express your feelings about the Boss carefully, and only if asked a direct question. Anything you wouldn’t want her to see on a Post-It note on her monitor screen is best said outside these walls.

Question authority
You need a deep bank of credibility to start gambling with dissent. I usually recommend a full year in a new job of doing as you are told, delivering high quality work, and building alliances before you start to rumble. Experiment by questioning the authority of your allies, and privately at first. If you have high-ranking friends, question a decision they or the company has made, in a humble tone that suggests you are trying to learn from their wisdom. This usually goes well. If you do get smacked down, walk it off. Offer your apology, and try to figure out the flaw in your delivery. Bank some more credibility in the areas above and try it again later.

If you manage to get some influential points with your high-ranking friends, don’t gloat about it to them, and don’t boast about it to others either. As surprising as it may be to you, you must project the superstar’s expectation that of course you changed the course of events. Why wouldn’t you? Give some long eye contact, a sober nod, and excuse yourself.

Over time, you’ll be able to voice dissent in more public gatherings, and eventually, your high-ranking allies will begin to seek you out. The gold medal prize is when they ask your opinion over your Boss’s – ideally.. in front of her. By the time you begin questioning the Boss to her face, you will have a jury of her own peers glad to say, “I’ve had her challenge me sometimes, but I value that difference of opinion.”

As the kids today say… snap.

Leave a paper trail
As you begin to take risks, you’ll need to protect yourself. This means keeping two important files: one that demonstrates how awesome you are, and another that demonstrates how crazy the Boss is. Feed them both. No email is too small. Taken together, a file of appreciation from others carries a lot of weight. Meanwhile, the Boss’s misdirected memos, incomplete instructions, backhanded compliments, credit stealing, and disproportionate reprimands play like a Fistful o’ Crazy. Should you tilt the scales in your favor? Absolutely, honey. If the worst comes down, the Boss will have nothing that compares to this stockpile.

Never let them see you sweat
No matter how crazy and unloved the Boss is, even the most cherished employee can throw herself to the wolves by committing a breach of protocol or decorum that writes a check your credibility bank can not cash. You have simply got to keep it together. Please yourself, impress your allies, support your colleagues. Treat the Boss like part of the furniture – a rickety ugly couch you often bark your shins on trying to get out of the den, but nothing more consequential than that.

Supervivere – to live beyond
One crazy Boss I worked for was in the job 10 years by the time I got there (18 years ago) and is still there today. So I did not best him. I lost a lot of skirmishes and I paid some hellacious and humiliating dues. What I did do was survive 7 years of his condescension and sexism until I had enough experience and education to move up and out. More importantly, I walked away with awards and recommendations, including those from him; and if you asked him today what kind of employee I was he’ll remember it fondly. He’ll never invite me over for dinner, and if I ever see him on the street I’ll pretend not to remember his name. But that’s acceptable both ways. He wasn’t my husband, my father, my lover, or even a friend. He was just the Boss.

~ CB

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