In my private practice in psychotherapy, I often work with clients who, sadly, really can’t stand their jobs. Often, it’s because they have a bad boss – someone who is unreasonable, overly demanding, illogical, absent, intrusive, or “behaviorally challenged” – manipulative, sexually harassing, or even verbally abusive. This situation makes me feel deeply for my clients, for it’s a particular kind of misery.
The answer, of course, is usually for the person to find another job. But in these “Recession-aftermath” times we live in, this isn’t always possible – at least not right away. What does a person do in the meantime? It’s not easy, but here are some tips to help you develop an escape plan, and try to keep your own sanity in the meantime:
1. Polish Your Resume – If you don’t have a resume, make one. And if you do have one, make sure that it is up-to-date with your most recent accomplishments (in quantifiable terms), technical skill sets, and generic “marketable” skills that any employer could appreciate. (If you need help on this, I offer “resume review and coaching” as part of Career Counseling sessions).
2. Understand Your Bad Boss – Many times, a “bad boss” is someone who has what is known by mental health professionals as a psychiatric “personality disorder.” You might have heard of these, such as the Narcissistic, Antisocial (sociopath), Histrionic (“drama queen”), Avoidant (reclusive), or Borderline (rageful, up-and-down mood, admiring/devaluing, etc.). (For very detailed information on these diagnoses, look them up online or consult the “bible” of mental health disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) by the American Psychiatric Association).
I’m over-simplifying here, but in general, dealing with a Narcissist involves validating that person. They are narcissistic because inside they are defending against a sense of being invisible, devalued, and unimportant, and they over-compensate. Praising, giving attention, and validating these kinds of bosses can help you survive them in the short term. But, you might also have to set limits. (Think of Meryl Streep’s character, Amanda Priestly, in “The Devil Wears Prada.”)
For the Antisocial, or sociopath, you must tread very carefully. These people are often criminals, and despite their sometimes outward charm, can be very dangerous people, because they lack any kind of conscience or inhibition of their behavior. They might be harassing, embezzling, falsifying office documents, or engaging in illegal activity. In a case like this, you might want to just quit and go on a stress-related disability. You might consider “blowing the whistle” on their wrongdoing later, but only with guidance from the police or a trusted mentor. I have been in this position before, and it’s very awkward, but it can be satisfying as a “civic duty” when you report the wrongful behavior from a safe distance.
For the Histrionic boss, I think the important consideration is to let their drama just “wash over” you, and focus only on the core issues that are beneath their hysterics and theatrics. Respond calmly, rationally, and logically when they are “in one of their moods.”
For the Avoidant boss, who is not in the office when they are supposed to be, negotiate a means of communicating with them that they can commit to – texting, email, exchange of voicemails, and use terms like, “If I don’t hear back from you by 3:00 p.m., I will assume that I can go ahead and send the press release, as is.” Or, give them choices: “If I don’t hear back from you on this question, we might lose this sales deal. If you can give me a quick text or email, we can close this deal by Friday.”
The Borderline boss is perhaps the most difficult, as these people are struggling with a rather severe psychiatric disability, despite sometimes achieving high position. Entertainment executives are notorious for this behavior, especially the women. Under pressure from a generally sexist environment, Borderline women bosses can react with desperation, anger, and irrationality (think of “Mommie Dearest” or “Sunset Boulevard”, classic films). Being calming, reassuring, consistent, clear, and simplified can help. Borderlines also have a tremendous fear of real or perceived abandonment, so keep in close touch with them (almost obnoxiously so) so that they feel emotionally safe and reassured that you are always “there for them.” These kinds of bosses might fire you one day, and rehire you the next in a panic. They have no sense of internal affect regulation, so you have to treat them like you would a two-year-old child who is having a temper tantrum – part setting limits, part reassuring.
3. Do Networking to Get a New Job – Don’t hesitate to contact and try to schedule an “informational interview” with a figure in the community whom you admire and want to work for. They might not always agree to meet with you, but if they do, spend 15-30 minutes with them to ask advice, questions about their career, and their current (or future) hiring needs. This kind of initiative might just get you hired. Think also of any mentors, neighbors, friends-of-friends, social media contacts, etc. that you might be able to call, email, have lunch or coffee with, etc. so that you are always making yourself known to people in a position to hire you. The more people who know you are skilled and available (subtly, so your current boss doesn’t find out), the better your chances of escaping the loony bin you currently work in.
4. Get Social Support – Remember that a bad job is hopefully only eight to ten hours a day. Get social support from a partner/spouse, friends, family, neighbors, or even fellow co-workers to de-compress and get some respite between challenges at the office. And if it gets too tough – where your mental or physical health is impaired – bring a grievance to your Human Resources department and negotiate either a severance package or an official leave of disability. Consult with an M.D. on this, especially a psychiatrist, who can sign the forms for you. Document your troubles at work with a psychotherapist, psychiatrist, and/or general practitioner M.D. Consider temp work in the meantime, or freelance work using your best skills.
Surviving a “sick office”, made sick by a person in charge who has a personality disorder, can be challenging – but many people I know (including myself) have been through it, and live to tell the tale. You will survive, and you will thrive. It takes a combination of coping in the short term, and escaping in the long term.
For support through this process, consider counseling or coaching sessions. To book your appointment at my Southern California office or via phone, please call 310-726-4357. (Phone coaching available for people outside of California).