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Horrible bosses: bad management experiences and how to overcome them

July 9th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Most of us have been on the sticky receiving end of some pretty sub-par management. Here are five tales to reassure you that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

Being a boss in undoubtedly challenging, but being subject to the whims of a boss who has some questionable professional policies, is arguably trickier, and sometimes outright damaging. Working under, a micro-manager or unreliable boss is difficult territory to navigate, but as career coaches Phanella Mayall Fine and Alice Olins discuss in Step Up: Confidence, Success and your Stellar Career in 10 Minutes a Day, dealing with tricky characters is par for the course in the grand scheme of things:

“One of the most common fears from our Step Up clients is office politics - and academic research supports our findings. But the fact is, where there are people vying for positions of power we get politics. It is completely unavoidable and that means that we all have to engage in it from time to time. Politics isn’t a dirty word, it’s just being smart and it’s a necessary part of work life.”

You can’t control how your boss acts, but you can control your own reaction to it and draw on it to ‘be the boss you want to see’, so to speak. It’s not easy, but as the following anonymous accounts demonstrate, bad boss experiences can ironically bolster your own professional aptitude and help you to develop additional skills, empathy and a greater level of self-respect. If all else fails, they can provide humorous anecdotes for the future (see the final stinky shoes episode…). That being said, if you are having a nightmare time working under a difficult or bullying boss, keep a diary and consider making a formal complaint to HR, a manager or a trade union representative.

There’s boss a), and then there’s boss b)...

“Everyone’s had a bad boss at some point in their lives and in my experience, it can either, a) make you a better person (and future boss) or b) make you want to dish out the same when you’re in a position of authority later on. Unfortunately, my bad boss fell under category b) and wanted to inflict the same unfair treatment she received when she was a professional in training."

"I try to see the best in everyone but unfortunately this particular boss had no redeeming qualities - she was calculating, manipulative and much a like a movie villain, would find your weakness, and proceed to find a way to make a vicious swipe about it in public to both humiliate and degrade. Not men I’d like to add, just women."

"She’d pick the most stressful moments to try and have a ‘heart-to-heart’ with me and this was in fact, when things came to a head. Knowing I had a tight deadline to adhere to, (imposed by her), she chose this particular occasion to call me into her office and say to me, ‘Are you sure you want to pursue this career?’ Unprovoked and uncalled for considering how hard I was working, my gut feeling tells me she did this to see me cry. I didn’t give her the satisfaction, but after speaking at me for half an hour and making me miss my client phone call as a result (which she was aware of) I bumped into my old boss (a truly lovely, aspirational manager who was amazing at her job) and promptly blubbed on her shoulder like a toddler. She told me to take the afternoon off and that she would help me handle the situation, as my boss’s behaviour was nothing new and she could see history repeating itself."

"The next day, I was moved to a new boss and my nightmare boss was dealt with accordingly. Work became a much happier place after that. So what did I learn? Most importantly, I now know the kind of boss I’d like to be, and not be. I find the very idea of being a horrible boss frankly baffling and having also experienced the very best bosses too, I have seen first-hand how motivating that can be. What I also discovered, later on, is that my nightmare boss decided to leave the profession two months afterwards, so I guess the second lesson I learned is that sometimes the reason bosses lash out is because they're trying to deal with some kind of unhappiness within themselves. Which I suppose humanises them, although doesn’t excuse their behaviour. Finally, I learned the importance of speaking up. Had I not talked to my wonderful former manager, I would have continued to feel very much alone. Enlisting the help of a trusted person in my office proved invaluable and her actions have ensured I’ll always fall under category a) for the rest of my working life.”

Shaky startup

“When I got to my mid-thirties and had a few jobs embedded well into my CV, I thought I had had my fair share or good and bad bosses and was prepared for anything. It turns out that where there is a bad boss (and you think it can’t get any worse), there is always a worse boss lurking in the shadows."

"Having worked for a number of businesses of different sizes, I felt ready to combat the startup world. It was a risk, but a risk I wanted to take as reward (if you get it right) can be high, and as I would be working for a new business, I knew the success of the business very much rested in large, on my shoulders. It was a challenge I was eager to pursue."

"The problem is, in a startup, if you don’t like your boss or you feel you are being unfairly treated, there is no one to go to to get help: there are no more senior members of staff to get guidance from and there is definitely no HR department. You, therefore, have to guide and manage yourself, which is tough, but on the flipside, a really great personal development exercise, and one that I had to keep reminding myself about when I did seven months working for the worst boss I ever had.

"My boss owned and managed a small shopping website which they were in the process of expanding rapidly when I joined. They seemed to be unable to hire people with experience and when they did they were unable to listen to their advice to tap into their expertise. Instead, they made the mistake of thinking they knew what they were doing and micromanaging to insane degrees to keep a sense of control over everything. This was frustrating as each day you could see more and more mistakes being made and it gradually became more demoralising. It also meant you were not in control of your workload and staff were expected to stay late every night to show their allegiance and dedication to the business and their job."

"I became so anxious about doing anything for fear of it being done ‘wrong’, that I suffered with back pain every day across my shoulders which I had never experienced before or since. It also meant I cut down on my social life and became so depressed at weekends that I couldn’t leave the house – often not even the bed."

"My boss’ control went even further to things like the fact that they always referred to the business as ‘their’ business (contrary to the startup philosophy of working as a team) and when the tiniest thing went wrong they would drag people into a meeting room or call them on the phone for 20-30 minutes at a time and tell them how they were single-handedly ruining ‘their’ business and reputation.

"In addition to this, they would repeatedly insult each employee behind the other members of staff’s backs, they were racist and sexist and after a call with a client once, they told me it was okay to be both of these things as long as it was not when clients were present because they did not warm to remarks like that."

"Despite the fact that every day with my boss was tough, I knew that through my years of working under various agendas and characters, I couldn’t let one person get me down and being as experienced as I was, I saw it more as an opportunity to prove myself as a mature adult and a valuable worker that someone somewhere would really appreciate. I also felt a duty to protect the more junior members of the team.

"It was this that really and truly got me through the length of time that I was there; focusing on my skills and what I could bring to a business, rather than what one person could not see. It was also about acting mature about the situation, rather than moaning to all of my friends and family with endless stories about how unhappy I was. Instead, I decided to be proactive and tackle things head-on. And you know what, it really worked because I continually reminded myself about how I hadn't crumbled and that felt very positive.

"Finally, I never underestimated what I learned there. Every day might have been a horrible experience, but what I technically learned was invaluable and had I not done it, I know I would not be in my amazing new job with all of my fabulous colleagues now. Very often you have to take the rough with the smooth to get to where you want to be.”

Work and play

“I had an unpopular boss once who used to insist that we all went 'socialising' and wouldn't let us leave until we were as drunk as he was. We'd spend the whole night trying to work out how to slip away without him noticing. The awful thing was, that if you stayed the course, it put you in his good books. I once organised an office party which earned me more brownie points and led to me being given more responsibility at work - it had more of an effect than any piece of work I had done. Luckily said boss left the company and my work was once again judged on merit.”

Quit the funny stuff

“As bad boss experiences go, I think one that decides to quit their job by running away during their lunch break is pretty poor form. I was an innocent AS Level student working in retail at the weekends, and I guess that my boss decided that weekends, or flogging jewellery, weren’t really her bag, so she did a runner one Sunday afternoon. I began to worry after about an hour and a half, but her mobile was mysteriously unreachable. I called the branch manager, who tried to investigate from afar, and then got a text from a friend I’d worked with saying that they’d seen her get on a bus looking pretty relaxed with snacks for the journey. I think there was a phone skirmish in the end with the branch manager, but she was never to return, so I spent the afternoon snatching wees when no customers were on the shop floor before balancing the till at the end of the day and cleaning the place. The fact that I didn’t have the authority to do refunds may have contributed to the fact that we came in on target for the day, but I put it down to my Independent Woman skillz. When proper full-on adults quit and you as a 17-year-old step in to take the reins and fly solo, you feel pretty confident that your skills extend far beyond door-greeter and peddling matching accessory items.”

Too close for comfort

“When I was working as a party planner (back in the day), I had quite a few intimate encounters with my boss, who had no sense of personal space and always insisted on sharing a room (and a double bed) whenever we travelled. She also had a bit of a body odour problem with particularly smelly shoes, to the point that when we were in Venice planning a wedding, I hung them out of the window (rather innocently) and they accidentally got washed into the grand canal overnight. Other incidents included her mistaking my Savlon for toothpaste and brushing her teeth with it before realising it was antiseptic cream and generally being completely scatty.”

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