The phone rings.
The voice on the other end of the line is usually an experienced, successful person who is at the end of their rope. They say something like, “I really need to find a new job. I can’t continue to work here – it’s toxic. I have the boss from Hell. But how can I leave? I’m a Director/VP/COO. And with this economy! I can’t stay, I can’t go. What do I do?”
“First, take a deep breath,” I’ll say. “It’s going to be OK.”
Then we talk about how to create an improvement in the current situation. Because sometimes that does the trick.
Oh, sure, you’ve tried everything you know how to do, but the boss is still a jerk. I get it. So why don’t we try some things you may not know how to do? Starting with:
Understand your own emotional reaction to the jerk. Not to go all Freud on you, but does she remind you of a difficult someone you’ve met before? Like your mother? Your grandmother? Your aunt? Your sister? Your 3rd grade teacher (the horrible Mrs. Wilson)? If this is starting to ring a bell for you, you’ll need to remind yourself -over and over like a meditation mantra – that your boss is not your mother, and that you do not have to react in the way you would with your mother. Of course, if you have unresolved stuff with your mom that’s spilling over into your workplace, then it’s probably time to see a capable therapist and work through it. That one thing alone could dramatically shift your work environment toward the positive.
Understand that true jerks won’t listen, and rarely change. Raising difficult issues – or even the truth – in a dysfunctional organization headed by a real jerk is one of the biggest challenges anyone can ever face. You may believe that if you could only string together the right words, everyone would have a collective Aha! moment and peace would reign forever. Good luck with that.
Here’s where I disagree with all the academics who publish books and lead workshops on Office Communication. They imagine a utopia where every player is honest, rational, well-intentioned, mature, responsible and cooperative.
Tell me where that workplace is and I’ll go right over and apply for a job myself.
In the real world where I live and work, some folks are fearful, and have blind spots, and are even deeply unconscious. Fail to take that into consideration when you deal with a jerk, and you’ll end up frustrated, stressed, worried and unhappy.
The bottom line: if you’re working for a jerk, the best thing you can do is figure out how you’re being emotionally triggered, defuse the triggers, and realize that as smart and capable as you are – you cannot make anyone change. You can only change how you react. And while that is sometimes enough to turn a situation around, sometimes the only positive sane change you can make is to leave.
Next week we’ll talk about setting boundaries when you work for a jerk, and the week after that I’ll tackle how to evaluate when it’s really time to quit.