Dealing With a Bad Boss: Why Empathy Is Key

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A boss can make the workplace miserable. Given how much time people spend in the office, life itself can become wretched when dealing with a bad boss. You may feel angry, humiliated, anxious, and/or depressed.

You tell your coworkers just how bad this supervisor is.

Your boss really is a “jerk,” you claim.

“A schmuck,” you all agree.

You consider doing something about it, but you end up taking no steps. You hope the boss stops acting this way and that everything will get better on its own.

But of course the boss doesn’t change. They keep yelling at you. They continue to make you work late to redo reports. They criticize your work. They criticize you.

You realize that change is unlikely. You try to do everything you can to avoid a blowout, but nothing works. Your job becomes a prison; each day is spent thinking about how much you hate your boss. You feel terrible. You dread each interaction.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are two steps you can take to make a change. Both may seem difficult, but they are surprisingly simple:

1. Acknowledge What You Might Be Bringing to the Table and Why Your Boss’s Behavior Bothers You So Much

Even if you have found solace in group gossip about your manager, chances are there is  a reason why you are so personally frustrated by this person. Do they remind you of someone else in life? Can you absolutely not tolerate criticism? What is it about you that makes your boss seem so bad? As intolerable as they seem, and as little as you want to do this, you may be surprised at the answers that arise.

2. The Complementary Approach – One That Can Be Incredibly Hard to Come to Terms With – Is to Empathize With Your Boss

Why on earth would we suggest finding an empathic spot for this person when it’s quite literally the last thing you want to do? Because if you must find a way to get along, you’ll need to take the long view and try to understand why your boss acts in this particular way.

In allowing yourself to empathize with your boss, you may also create a way for some of the negativity to fade away. In understanding your boss and yourself, you can replace the bottled up disdain with a desire to learn and grow.

EmptyWe’ve consulted with a number of employees over the years who have had significant problems with their bosses. In all situations, we ask the workers to consider why they seem to be so rattled by their superiors. Why do they feel so minimized and humiliated when, for example, they are scolded or criticized?

Employees bring their own issues to the table, and person must evaluate these issues for themselves. Perhaps the same boss doesn’t bother another colleague quite as much. We try to help people understand that it’s their responsibility to look inward for answers to some of these questions.

At the same time, employees often find themselves wondering whether people who ascend to management positions possess some particular characteristics. We ask them to empathize, to think about what could be driving someone’s boss to be so dismissive of their feelings. What does the employee know about this person? What is the office like for the boss? What was their path to promotion? What in this story might have caused the boss to behave so distastefully?

Most importantly, we try to frame the internal struggles a boss might be dealing with that can cause distasteful behavior. Perhaps a micromanaging boss is so incredibly afraid of losing control that they need to discipline everyone in the office to feel more secure. Maybe the boss has spent their whole life trying to be “perfect” in order to please others, so they take their insecurities out on their direct reports. Perhaps a seemingly arrogant boss only flies off the handle when they feel exposed or humiliated; they are afraid everyone might discover that the big job is just a mask covering cripplingly low self-esteem.

In trying to understand the boss’s underlying anxiety, an employee can interact in ways that keep the supervisor’s fear at bay. Find little ways to show the boss they are in control, if necessary. If the boss has fragile self-esteem, acknowledge their positives when opportunities arise. If a disorganized boss can’t finish anything and slows everyone else down, learn to interact with them in bite-size tasks that can be completed one at a time.

The hardest part is acknowledging our own roles in making the workplace more comfortable. In accepting the task of learning about ourselves and our bosses, we can do just that. Just look and listen with the intent to understand. It works every time.

Dr. Michelle Joy and Dr. Jody Foster are the authors of The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively With Difficult People at Work.

By Dr. Michelle Joy and Dr. Jody Foster