Fear and Loathing in the Workplace

Most people, when pressed, would tell you they do their best work when encouraged and motivated with compassion and respect. FLThey would say that the best leader is the one who makes the workplace an open, collaborative environment, one where expectations are clear and professionals are trusted to do their jobs.

This is the ideal.

Yet fear in the workplace is very real, created by a multitude of factors. Some of the factors are big, as in a global transformation, a crisis or a merger. Some are more local, such as unrealistic performance standards, negative co-workers or a toxic boss. Regardless of the factor, the impact is stark.

In 2012, the American Psychological Association (APA) surveyed over 1,700 professionals on how they experience their work environment . Although the vast majority said they felt valued at work, an alarming 41% reported feeling chronically stressed, driven by low pay, lack of advancement opportunities and work overload. Additionally, the World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American business roughly $300 billion per year. In other words, a stressful work environment is a problem for everyone involved.

I’ve lived through a few mergers, my share of bad bosses and work environments where the lack of leadership direction created a palpable brand of paralysis. All of these were tough to deal with but I would have to rank bad bosses at the very top of the list. Why? Because mergers and transformations have an end date. Even situations where a lack of leadership direction causes internal paralysis comes to an end at some point, or else the business will not survive. No, the worst situation is the one with the bad boss.

The bad boss is deceptive. You could find yourself in a company where the job is engaging, the company is on an upswing and you love your colleagues. Everything could look good on paper. Then, the bad boss comes storming out of his or her office, ready to muck it all up. Bad bosses are basically bullies. For whatever reason, they never let go of the schoolyard. They are at the ready to play favorites, intimidate, change expectations at a whim and use their people for their own gain. It can be maddening to be on the receiving end of such treatment. And it can feel very isolating to feel you are the only one seeing the behavior, since a bad boss can be very skilled at managing up.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, which is dedicated to research and prevention of workplace abuse, found that 72% of the 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed were aware of abuse by bosses or co-workers. Roughly 27% of those surveyed had experienced such abuse first-hand. The result of such treatment was unfortunate, with most people leaving the situation by choice or being forced out.

It took me a very long time to learn how to deal with the bad boss. Early in my career, I just soldiered on, believing that I had few, if any, options. In time, I learned the following:

1) The Bad Boss is Transparent: You may think you’re the only one who sees what is happening, but that’s not true. Bad bosses can cover their tracks for a while, even very skillfully, but they become so comfortable in their behavior that they get sloppy. Although this might not solve the current situation, it does help diminish the sense of isolation that accompanies working for such a jerk.

2) The Bad Boss Teaches Resilience: You know what you do well, and you want to do it. The bad boss makes that challenging. When you’re faced with such unnecessary obstacles, you learn to work through them and remain effective.

3) The Bad Boss Shows You Your Limit: Everyone has their high water mark. Most of the time, we don’t get close to reaching it and that’s just fine. But sometimes it’s valuable to know where the limit rests, and how we want to react when we hit it.

4) The Bad Boss Illustrates What Not to Be: You can read every leadership book in the world but the best example could be the one you would never follow. Seeing a bad boss in action helps you determine what you want your leadership style to be.

As odd as this may sound, working for a bad boss taught me as much as working for a good one did. I’ve had some great, great bosses. And I’ve had some horrible ones. I’ve learned from them all. Most important, I’m now able to clearly articulate where I work best, what I will tolerate and, ultimately, what I want my work experience to be. Has it forced me to leave some jobs in search of something better? Yes, but it’s taught me to be discerning when it comes to my career – a lesson that I’m glad to have learned.




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