Lessons learned from a bad boss

Shelly* was a screamer. Through the wall I could hear her side of the phone call — at a very high decibel, she was berating the dry cleaner for allegedly losing the pants to her suit. Shelly's unhappiness was exceedingly evident to everyone in our tight-knit marketing department as her shouts echoed down the hallway.

This was not an atypical outburst brought on by vendor negligence -- this type of unhinged behavior from my new boss was shockingly common. I shook my head and could not believe this was my job and that she was my boss. I mean, who acts like that?

Shelly’s approach to management alternated between ingratiation, manipulation, and micromanagement. And then there were the flirtations with her male colleagues and her frequent emotional outbursts which could come out of nowhere like a tornado whipping across the placid plains. The dry cleaning drama playing out in the office next door was only the latest Shelly-centered storm to hit our department.

To put it mildly, I was wary of her. I knew she was under pressure to prove herself in this new role. She’d moved halfway across the country when she started this job a few months before. Because her role was new it brought with it some process changes that took getting used to for her and the rest of the department.

One of the changes instituted was review of all marketing copy before it was sent to clients which seemed reasonable. While that new policy made sense in an ideal world, anything I provided to her for review would vanish as if into a black hole, never to be seen again until I went looking for it. When I followed up she’d dig through piles on her desk search for it, often with me gingerly lifting piles in an attempt to help. If we were able to locate it, only then would the review begin.

To say the least, it was frustrating. My projects were languishing because she insisted on being part of the review process even though she never provided feedback without prompting. From my youthful perspective, I figured the easiest course would be to cut her out of the process. I rationalized that it was inefficient, and even when she provided feedback, it was rarely impactful.

I felt justified in my decision. After all, she was creating a bottleneck. My clients were happy with the projects I was working on so I figured I was doing the righteous thing (if not exactly the right thing). I look back on that naive decision wistfully. How little I understood office politics or respected the chain of command.

Then one day I was called into her office -- whoops, she'd figured out I was defying her request for review. She gave it to me straight -- I could get with the program and accept her feedback on my projects or be put on probation. I wasn't used to being the rebel and I was chagrined to be in that position. I decided surrender was wise and said, “Well, when you put it that way, it makes sense for you to review my work.”

She’d called my bluff and it finally hit me that no matter how much I disliked her as a manager, she was still my manager and I would fail if I continued to defy her. From that moment on, every morning I would stop by her office to muster a cheery good morning. At first, I had to grit my teeth when I did it, but as time went on I found I was faking it less and I started feeling more generous towards her.

As I made the effort to respect her authority as the head of the department, she relaxed and began to confide in me. I still didn’t respect her lack of self control or disorganization, but I realized I couldn’t control her and frankly, as her subordinate, it wasn’t my responsibility to deal with those issues. My job became easier as I was no longer the target of her vitriol and frustration. I discovered that it took a lot more energy to resist than to accept the situation!

Unfortunately, a colleague soon became the new target for the boss’s nitpicking and bullying. Though I knew nothing of it at the time, the bullying incidents involving my co-worker was the proverbial "last straw" for Shelly. She had finally overstepped the boundaries between poor management and documented abuse (with witnesses).

One evening shortly after 5 pm as I sat in my office finishing up a project, the voicemail light on my phone suddenly blinked red. Thinking it curious since the phone hadn’t rung, I listened to the message and realized my fervent prayers had been answered! The head of marketing stated that effective immediately Shelly was no longer employed by the organization.

I ran expectantly to my co-worker's office to see if she'd heard the message. We giggled like giddy munchkins after Dorothy's house fell on the Wicked Witch. Shelly's 10-month reign of chaos had ended. Ding dong the witch was gone. I don’t intend to be mean, but it is difficult to grin and bear it under the authority of an abusive manager.

When I look back, I realize that both despite of and because of her poor management skills I learned several important lessons from the experience:

1. If you want to lead change, you need to know where you're starting from. It's important to understand the culture, communicate a vision and gain buy-in before before trying to lead change. Shelly had been hired to lead a team that was already high-performing, close knit and collegial.

She approached the team as if it were in need of a turn-around rather than a basic tune-up and because she neglected those steps, she met resistance. A little listening would have gone a long way to supporting her success.

2. Regardless of the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of a supervisor, it’s imperative to respect the role. Bypassing my boss served no purpose for me or the organization other than to make me insubordinate. It wasn’t my place to pass judgment on her effectiveness. It was also incumbent on me to ask her for what I needed — such as reminding her to provide me feedback on the projects so they would stay on schedule.

I needed to be fully responsible for my part of the projects regardless of whether she was delivering on her side. Though her style was frustrating to me, it was no excuse not to keep up my work commitments or to respect her authority as my manager.

3. Have a contingency plan. While it wasn’t my place to judge, it would have been wise of me to take note of her lack of effectiveness and document my own actions so I could explain project delays caused by her slow review and approval of project deliverables.

4. Keep some perspective. Nothing is forever. During that time I allowed myself to become so stressed and then one day the “cause” of my stress (my boss) was gone. At that moment I realized that I’d been walking around "loaded for bear" but suddenly the bear was gone.

All at once, those "big guns" were heavy and unnecessary. I then realized that it had been my choice to be defensive and resentful. Based on my own beliefs, I had been the one making myself miserable — not her.

5. Working through personnel issues can take some time in the corporate world. HR issues are confidential and only those who need to know will be privy to what's going on. There can be a lot going on behind the scenes and it may seem like the abusive employee is getting a free pass.

In this case, for several months as Shelly continued to bully and cause mayhem, I felt that the company had forsaken our department and put us under the merciless rule of a mad queen. (At least that’s what it felt like.) I now know that my boss’s manager was aware that there was a problem and was dealing with it through HR in a confidential way.

6. Beliefs create mindset and we have control over our beliefs. This is THE big take-away — I was stressed and overwhelmed not because I had an ineffective boss but due to my own beliefs. I was capable of being happy. I could have chosen to leave work behind when I went home at the end of each work day. Instead, I chose to bring it home with me and lament my situation over a few glasses of wine (and whine).

It was only when Shelly was gone in a wink that I realized I’d been resisting so hard. It was strange to suddenly have nothing to resist. It was then that I realized it had been my choice. What a weight that was lifted from my shoulders just with that realization! Working for Shelly wasn’t a pleasant time in my life but I learned some extremely valuable lessons from her, for which I’ll be forever grateful.

So to Shelly, wherever you are, thank you for teaching me these lessons and be well! And I hope you found your suit pants!


*Not her real name.


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