Sunday, June 17, 2012

Quittin' Time: How to Survive in the Modern Workplace

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
-Eleanor Roosevelt

"Evidence suggests that even Gandhi was a jerk to work for." 
-Stanley Bing, Throwing the Elephant

"Gooooood! Goooooood! I like the way you make the toilet squeak!" 
-Horrible boss #27
The people have spoken, the results are in, and at long last I present to you the wisdom of your collective experience in the hard and often cruel world that is the modern workplace. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and entertain the wicked). Thanks to all who filled out the survey. Here's what jumped out at me from your responses.

1. Bad bosses are (almost) everywhere. Almost everyone has a bad boss tale, and from the sounds of things, a lot of bosses are shockingly bad. You had all kinds of words to describe them - erratic, micro-managing, irresponsible, manipulative, angry, uncommunicative, egotistical, unfair. One of the most frequent themes is the malevolent influence of authority. Though more than a third of you actually liked your bosses as people, you all found them stressful to work under as employees. Not everyone's cut out to manage other people, and some react to power in strange ways, like holding themselves to separate standards as everyone else or holding up projects because their personal sense of authority has been threatened. 

2. Bosses can get away with a lot of crap. During his short-lived stint working at a movie theater, 14-year-old Walt had a boss who would stand over my shoulder and embarrass me in front of customers. (He) actually told me that I was the last person he would hire who wasn't an athlete because I was moving too slow for him (I was serving popcorn). Gretchen's boss once asked me if allowing 3 sick days a year was being 'too generous.' When someone called from the ER to say she needed emergency surgery, he told her it 'wasn't a good time' and brought her work to do as she recovered in the hospital. Says Phoebe, I knew things weren't right when (my boss) told me I had to dangle her small infant over the toilet while making the 'pssssss' sound so that he would pee in the toilet instead of into his diaper. This involved me straddling the toilet...and dangling...his bare little 6-month-old bottom (over it) for indeterminate amounts of time.

3. You can't approach the boss as your equal. The sad reality is that trying to stand up for what's right and fair can get you into trouble. Several of you tried to approach the situation as mature professionals and address your bosses directly with feedback and suggestions for how to improve your working relationship. Doing this got at least one of you fired. 

Others, like Pippi, took a slightly different tack and lodged a complaint with your boss' supervisor or other potentially sympathetic colleagues. After her boss wrongly accused her of something, Pippi spoke to a managing director...(who) advised me to grow some thicker skin, and, whatever I did, to not try to talk to (my boss) about the issue. He said he would never change, and my job would be potentially at risk.  Desiree had a similar experience when she asked a more experienced colleague for advice about whether or not to take a stand against her increasingly abusive boss. To her dismay, he told her there's little you can constructively do without making yourself look like the problem. Can't imagine you'd get anywhere with HR. In fact the best advice I can give is not to go down that road. HR approach could stain your reputation, regardless how many months notice you give. (Not to mention the 'reason for leaving' discussion in the next interview with the next employer.....)

4. Your boss might be a human being, just like you. Then again, he might not. Either way, it doesn't really matter. The main thing is to not care. If your boss is generally rational and likable with some flaws as a manager, putting yourself in her shoes might provide you the perspective necessary to tolerate her less-than-ideal traits. If you know that your boss is facing a lot of pressure from the higher ups or a stressful home situation, for example, it might be easier to forgive her periodic bursts of anger. However, many bosses seem to come from outer space, where your code of ethics does not apply, and no amount of rationalizing will help you understand the reasons for their behavior. In these cases, the best way to preserve sanity seems to involve detaching yourself somehow from the situation, accepting what you cannot change, not taking anything personally and remembering that a job is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. As Pippi noticed, the angrier or more timid I became, the worse my relationship (with my boss) became. The more I pretended to let things roll off my back, the more I killed him with kindness, the quicker he moved on from whatever daily rage he was in. Of course, the ultimate goal is to not have to pretend, to really just let things roll off your back, without caring. 

5. Not caring is tricky. Most of us aren't very good at it. Many of us - male, female, old, young - are conditioned to want to please our bosses; their approval makes us feel valued. When we don't get it, or when the work environment doesn't meet our expectations in other ways, the ensuing stress takes a serious toll. We have a difficult time separating ourselves from the negative experiences we're having at work. As Frodo shared, (I) kept thinking if only I were a better person his behavior wouldn't bother me. Aretha, meanwhile, became more anxious and nervous at work, then gradually (took) those feelings home with me. I had no energy to go out or do things with friends. Rock bottom was when I found myself crying in front of co-workers as I ran from a meeting. Another time...I locked myself in a storage room and called my parents, sobbing and inconsolable. 

Many of you reported psychological ailments, including deflated self esteem and anger that manifested itself through emotional breakdowns, unusual bouts of temper, self isolation, brooding and anxiety attacks. For most people, the stress took on some kind of physical form - chest pains, difficulty sleeping, nausea, weight gain, allergic reactions, and even heart palpitations that put one person in the hospital. Knowing that we shouldn't take work too seriously is clearly one thing, while acting on that is another matter altogether. There's some good news, though.

6. Sometimes we can learn not to care. Looking inwardly, perhaps with the help of a good professional, can sometimes help us understand why we're responding to a work situation in such an unhealthy way and give us the awareness we need to change. After two years of therapy, Marilyn realized that I was recreating my relationship with my parents and expecting a different outcome, when in fact my boss was meeting her own needs in her relationship with me. With the understanding that she was not my parent, I was able to divorce myself from her and from the job. Self awareness and emotional control are hugely important, not just at work but in all aspects of life - in reality, all we can really control in this world is ourselves, so figuring out how to stay sane in an imperfect work situation should theoretically help us to manage other relationships better, too. 

7. Sometimes bad work situations actually improve.  After enduring four shifts at the movie theater, Walt had seen enough, and left his toilet scrubbing days behind. Quitting is a sure ticket out of a crappy work environment, and is a pretty ideal solution, as long as you can afford it. Unfortunately, sometimes we feel a lot of pressure to hang onto our jobs, at all costs, especially in the current economy. Bad bosses do get fired sometimes, so a carefully placed complaint to the right person can eventually pay off, especially if you work in concert with other dissatisfied and respected colleagues. One of the best strategies may be to avoid getting into poor work situations in the first place, by doing some research on any potential new bosses and paying attention to red flags that come up in the process before you accept a job. We can definitely learn to mitigate bad situations, but if we can avoid them in the first place, why on earth shouldn't we?

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