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When does a boss go from being difficult to being dysfunctional? And what can you do if the dysfunctional boss is your boss?

My coaching work with Suzanne (not her real name) began in an effort to help her get along better with her manager, Bill. Since this is a fairly common coaching goal, I set out to do the things that tend to help clients in this situation: helping Suzanne see things from Bill’s perspective, exploring how Bill’s personality might trigger frustration for Suzanne, role playing around how Suzanne could adjust her behavior to better meet Bill’s needs.

Over time, though, what has emerged is less a picture of Suzanne as inflexible, but more that her boss, Bill, is largely responsible for the problems.

Whether it’s been from Suzanne or other clients, I have heard about many dysfunctional managerial behaviors, including:

  • A manager who micro-manages his staff and has difficulty allowing them the decision-making power required to be taken seriously in the organization
  • A manager who is indiscreet and speaks poorly about people in the organization, leaving his team to imagine that it’s possible that they too, are gossiped about by the boss
  • A manager who agrees before a meeting about how she’s going to handle a discussion with stakeholders, and then halfway through the actual meeting, changes position, creating confusion and potentially frustration for people on her team
  • A manager who raises his voice at staff, even yells, when annoyed at staff
  • A manager whose work-life balance is poor—including constant travel—and expects a comparable pace from direct reports
  • A manager who is more interested in managing up than managing down, and who shows little interest in the career development of his direct reports, maybe even feeling threatened that one of his direct reports could replace him one day, leading to the withholding of important information as well as basic encouragement
  • And perhaps most delicate: a manager who drinks alcohol frequently and in large quantities at business dinners, leading to inappropriate joking and/or forgetfulness the next day

Working with Suzanne has underscored important ways in which we can all refine our coping skills as well as to take care of our own needs better at work, especially with a difficult or dysfunctional boss.

  • Apply the Serenity Prayer to your situation: that is, seek to understand what is within your control and what is outside of your control. Challenge yourself to appreciate you may have more control than you might think. For instance, you may believe that you can’t ever say anything to your boss about his behavior, or that you can’t ever quit your job. Remember, there are more possibilities in each moment than you realize.
  • Appreciate that you are in fact getting something from the situation, even if the situation is untenable or dysfunctional. That something could be a regular paycheck, it could be new skills or expertise, a chance to live near extended family, etc. There’s no right or wrong to this one; it’s just critical that you take yourself out of the “victim” role and appreciate that for as long as you work for this organization/boss, you are in fact making a choice at some level. Appreciating what you’re getting out of a difficult situation can help in feeling more empowered, a much healthier place from which decision-making and action can be taken.
  • Practice drawing more healthy boundaries for yourself and with your boss. If your work-life balance has deteriorated in an effort to keep up with your boss, decide what you want to do to regain more time and flexibility in your life. If your boss speaks to you inappropriately, tell him/her it’s not okay and make a request about how you wish to be spoken to.
  • Be open to looking at how your own personal history may play a role in your tolerance of inappropriate behavior. Maybe it’s a belief from your family that you can never quit a job. Or maybe you had a parent who was neglectful. Whatever the source, be sure to look at how you might be recreating an old pattern in the present situation and focus on what you can do differently.
  • Find other allies, champions, and mentors in your organization so that your career success doesn’t just rely on your manager’s support.
  • Let yourself learn from the negative example: Identify all of your boss’s dysfunctional behaviors and be clear about you will operate as a leader in the future in response to this experience.
  • Finally, define when enough is enough for you. What will it take for you to stand up for your beliefs and values? What will that look like?

It may be a cliché, but if a bad boss doesn’t kill us, perhaps we do become stronger. I encourage each of us to use a difficult boss to become more self-aware, to learn about what we want and what we don’t want, and to test our ability to deal with discomfort, uncertainty, and change.

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