I bumped into a neighbor I’ll call “Sue” on the 4th of July who had a problem that many encounter at some point in their career; a bullying boss.
Sue is gutsy, and had tried several “talk it outs” with her boss to figure out a way to work better together and was getting nowhere. The boss was relatively nice in public and a monster in private. The revolving door of people who the boss had run through was legendary in the organization
While there is the Warren Bennis thought – You learn more from bad bosses than good ones because the bad ones teach you what not to do – nobody’s idea of fun is hanging around with a bullying boss so you get a graduate level education.
Sue was no different.
And Sue did what many people should do; she realized that while she reported to somebody who was a bully as a boss, she ultimately worked for and responsible for herself.
In doing so, she had the smarts (and perhaps the benefits of a couple of dog walking conversations with me) to frame the situation in a best possible light and looked elsewhere in the organization.
How did she frame the situation?
By honing a fine line between being candid and honest and avoiding badmouthing her boss, the latter that’s an act that can get more people into trouble faster than you can say “problem employee.”
As she explored other options in the organization her language was simple: “I’ve learned a lot by working with the department and the people in it. My boss does many things well and can also be challenging at times to work with. I’m ready to move on to other challenges and other areas of the organization where I can continue to learn.”
Given the fact that her boss’ reputation as near-impossible to work with was well known, people likely didn’t regard Sue as jumping ship. More likely people saw it as a sign of perseverance that she’d worked with her boss for a fair amount of time, and a sign of smarts that she was ready to move on.
It’s clear from research that bullies, whether they be a boss or colleague, don’t always finish last.
A recent piece of research from the University of Buffalo School of Management that was reported in the Wall Street Journal noted “bullies thrive by charming their supervisors and manipulating others to help them get ahead, even while they abuse theirco-workers. Because many bullies can “possess high levels of social ability,” they are “able to strategically abuse co-workers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor.”
My neighbor Sue realized that the organization was not going to take out her boss, so she did the smart thing and found a comparable role within the bigger organization where she could do better work. As a bonus, it’s an area of the organization that’s set to expand, and her opportunities sounded pretty promising.
There are other ways than Sue’s effective approach, including cut and bail (e.g. quit and move on) as well as taking on the boss directly.
I’ll post a piece about the latter approach that was a rare success later this month.
In the meantime, her’s a tip of the hat in admiration to Sue. Her move made for her a terrific “Independence Day.”
Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.
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