For many years, this appeared to be an unending and soul crushing theme of my existence. I had the uncanny ability to attract one boss (or co-worker) after another who made my work life torturous and my social life include more and more alcohol as time passed.
By the time I hit my early forties, I was desperate and beginning to think that I would never have a work life that I could tolerate, let alone love. I became known as the woman who always complained about her job. I was miserable, until one fateful evening over wine with a friend. We worked at the same place, but she did not have the problems that I had with work. She loved her job. (She's a boomer, so it goes without saying....)
I was telling her my latest problem with one of my co-workers, going on and on about how wrong they were, how dishonest and manipulative they were and mid sentence she stopped me and asked me to consider what, in all the times I had complained to her about one work problem or another, was the commonality. What was the thread that ran through all of my stories of woe of pain at work? I thought for a while. It took a good fifteen minutes, if I remember correctly. She waited patiently while I mulled it over. Then, suddenly, it hit me like a kick in the gut. "Me?" I asked her, sheepishly.
"Yes, you, you darling girl. You are your own worst enemy in these situations and you never see it." As painful as it was at the time, this was the beginning of me taking control of my work life and turning it into something I could love. Granted, it has taken me several years to perfect, but I can honestly say that I am a much happier employee than I used to be. I can also say that I could work just about anywhere and figure out how to enjoy it.
I discovered the secret to my success and while I would not by any means call it easy, it is a whole lot easier than what I was doing before, suffering, that is, at the hands of any fool I gave control to. The one thing that I always remember when dealing with People Who Act Strangely, (crappy bosses), is that it is never about me, and that these people are very often profoundly sad themselves or insecure about their abilities. How do I know this? Well, happy, secure people don't usually treat others badly. That is just physics.
- When dealing with crappy bosses, many people will tell you that you are most likely going to have to "manage up." If you want to hold on to your sanity, for the love of all that is holy, do not do this. You will lose your soul in the attempt. The best approach to handling bosses who are in need of management is to leave them alone, kind of like a bear. Trying to please, talk to, or even feed the bear is ill advised because the bear will never appreciate it and will more often than not, become bored or angry and end up taking a swipe at you. What you can do is get what you need from your workplace (skills, good references, good working relationships with other people in your department or other departments), as quickly as possible, and leave with your soul intact. You did not take this job so that you could babysit a bear. Your job, no matter where or what it is should be used as a step to get to the next place. Get what you need and back away slowly with your head down. People who try to tame wild animals very often end up losing their heads.
- Be intentional with your efforts at work. If you are dealing with a crappy boss, be strategic in how you are dealing with him and, as ever, take nothing personally. You do not always have to be right, you do not always have to voice your opinion, and you certainly do not have to engage in a power struggle over basically, nothing. It is very easy to slip into this mode without thinking about it, but really, you never really win when you try to argue with a bear. You also cannot mindlessly go through your day hoping that nothing bad will happen, hoping that your boss will not notice you, hoping that you will not have to endure another episode. Be proactive. Create the right situations for yourself by taking a hand in them. Taking control can mean as little as choosing what you bring to work with you. Your food, your clothes, your hair can all become topics of conversation and entertainment. Always look for the positive in any situation. Figure out how to solve problems before you are asked to. Do not revel in negativity. You can make yourself the go-to person if your perspective is toward problem-solving and not problem-making. Do not participate in gossip. It is destructive in all of its forms and distracts you from your goal: improving yourself.
- Be direct. If your boss or other co-worker is doing things that upset you, it is best that you let them know in a non-threatening but direct manner what you need instead. This does not include sending an email or any other form of virtual communication. The best way that I have found is to set a time with this person, outside of an actual tense interaction that might have transpired between the two of you and let them know what you need. If you notice, I did not tell you to let them know how you feel. Work is not therapy and it is best not to get confused in this regard. Instead of dwelling on any trespass that may have occurred between you, sit down with your boss and ask for what you need instead. This will completely derail any call for defensive behavior that might ensue if you are dealing with a truly crappy boss. You can frame it like this: "I will be able to give you what you want faster if you direct me in XYZ manner." Or, you can frame it as a question. "Were you trying to get me to complete this project in XYZ way? It would help me if you gave me ABC information so that I am able to get you what you need more quickly." What I am saying is, make it a conversation, not an accusation. It will turn out better for everyone.
- KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. This item is pivotal and has saved me more times than I care to count. How does one keep their sense of humor at work? Well, I make sure that I have a lot of inside jokes to laugh about with myself. Inside jokes act as a kind of shield and very often deflect any bad juju from heading my way. For instance, in one situation, every time I had to enter a difficult person's office, I decided that I should be eating cake as I did so. It was my intention to see how long it would take for this person to notice. It was my own little social experiment, and it took all of the anxiety I had around talking to this person away. And, I got to eat cake on a pretty regular basis. Another example I can give you is something I lovingly refer to as "The Jim Effect." Jim Halpert, the unsung hero of TV's The Office is my role model in this regard. He works for an idiot, he shares desk space with a freak, but somehow, through humor and creative use of jell-o, he makes what might otherwise be an intolerable work situation really quite enjoyable. As I am sure you have noticed, some people in the world take themselves very seriously. It is your responsibility, your right as a human, to lighten the mood. There is no force more powerful than laughter. Use it to your advantage and watch the hours fly by.
- Create your own "happy space". This can take many forms. One thing I like to do is create a quote board for employees. This is a space where you hang funny and entertaining quotes made by your co-workers. While it sounds quite simple, the effect it has on the work space is profound. You get the opportunity to share funny moments with people who might not have been around to experience them, and in a sense, you are celebrating and revealing a bit of the people with whom you work. Another thing I have done recently is "Treat the Real World Like it is Facebook." I go around handing out articles of interest, "poking" people, "liking" them with a thumbs up, hanging up random pictures of myself on walls, and entering rooms, announcing mundane facts about my cat, and leaving. Everyone knows what you are doing because, well, it is facebook, and no one has to participate to be in on the joke. It is a perfect workplace activity because it infuses it with laughter.
Make room for yourself at work. Do not conform to a standard, do not become a sheep. The twenty-first century is no time to "tow the line." In all matters, you have to get the jump on crappy bosses before the fallout starts. If you come in with your intention, your desire to lighten the mood, and your desire to laugh before your boss has the opportunity to crush your soul, you can get what you need from your job every day and leave unscathed.
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