How do you deal with a mean boss?
January 2, 2020 2:08 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with a mean boss?

My boss, I have concluded after quite some time, is just a mean person and is not going to change. I don’t think they dislike me more than anyone else (and other people have told me, often unprompted, that boss is not nice to them either) but for workplace hierarchy reasons I bear the brunt of direct boss interactions.

I try not to take it personally but it’s hard. Boss routinely calls me wrong and slow and insinuates that I am stupid and don’t care about my job. I am none of these things and in particular, boss often has to admit I am not wrong and I think it makes them resent me more. Any tips for dealing with this are welcome. I am strongly considering switching jobs but want to see if I can make it work.
posted by ferret branca to Work & Money (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you can't change him or her. So you can only change yourself. Maybe change your job? If you have an exit interview with HR, make it clear why you're going. Eventually, HR will catch on that the boss is s**t.
posted by tmdonahue at 2:21 PM on January 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

My friend’s friend was in the military, and he always said “in the military, there are 100 ways to say ‘yes sir,’ and 99 of them mean ‘fuck you.’
posted by Melismata at 2:23 PM on January 2, 2020 [33 favorites]

Best answer: I spent three years with a mean boss. The first year, I said, it's not personal, that's just her way. The second year, I said, maybe if I am always, totally prepared it will keep her from having a reason to attack. The third year, I started losing my temper with my husband and friends if they said anything slightly critical. I became angry with my coworkers who set her off. I dreaded every morning meeting and every deadline. I started to believe that I really was the loser she said I was.

One day, I just couldn't deal anymore and started looking for a new job that night. Two months later I got a job offer that was amazing and I moved across the state to escape her and follow an opportunity that I'd never get there.

It's been almost three years and I'm still a little sensitive to criticism. Even though I know the new place is nothing like that and my new boss is the polar opposite of the old, I still worry and hold my breath before submitting documents or speaking up in meetings.

Quit. Find a new gig before the damage is really done. I've watched my coworkers twist themselves into pretzels of pain to accommodate the old boss. All of them wanted to leave but didn't for one reason or another, and they are all so very miserable.
posted by teleri025 at 2:26 PM on January 2, 2020 [70 favorites]

Best answer: I tried to make it work and ultimately failed. What I realised, once I finally got another job, is that this kind of abusive shit damages you. I ended up learning all kinds of dysfunctional and career-damaging habits that served me really badly once I was in a sane environment working with kind people. I wish I had quit earlier.
posted by quacks like a duck at 2:29 PM on January 2, 2020 [40 favorites]

Three undeveloped reactions.

(1) There's a host of books about this scenario, one of the most famous being Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work. It's in my book queue, but admittedly I've not read it yet.

(2) I've found empathy useful as a way of dousing fury. I've had a similar situation for a long time. I've realized the person is miserable and trapped inside his misery, and closed off to anyone helping him out of it. That's a hellish scenario.

(3) Reaction two having been said, that doesn't give them an excuse to abuse. And you're in an abusive situation. You may want to make it work and I very much understand that. But consider whether the merits outweigh the disadvantages. If they do, then default back to reactions one and two, and try to figure out boss' triggers ... but life is too short.
posted by WCityMike at 2:44 PM on January 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

I am strongly considering switching jobs but want to see if I can make it work.

IMO the best option here is damage control while you look for a job that doesn't suck so much. The longer you put up with a bad work environment, the more you adapt yourself to deal with it. Those adaptations are not likely to be productive when you find yourself in a better place, and it will probably take you a while to unlearn them. That's not easy.

It's important to do what you can for your present self by trying to cope well with your current situation, but you've got your future self to think about, too. Don't sabotage your future self if you can avoid it. (Past self, though? Past self is such a jerk.)
posted by asperity at 3:13 PM on January 2, 2020 [8 favorites]

Another option, besides finding and entirely new job in a new workplace, would be to angle for some sidewise move or promotion at your current workplace--something that puts you out of the direct line of fire of Toxic Boss.

This sort of thing can be bearable if it's one person of many you must deal with, but not really bearable if it is one of your primary work relationships.
posted by flug at 3:16 PM on January 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

Came here to say exactly what quacks like a duck said. When I read the title of your question I thought you meant that your boss was simply curt or highly direct, but from the description I would more accurately describe your boss as abusive.
posted by unannihilated at 3:18 PM on January 2, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I am really strongly considering working somewhere else, believe me. There’s no chance I can do any sort of lateral move at my current gig, though I wish there was. I hate feeling like a quitter when I think about leaving, but I worry very much about how I am adapting myself to deal with this workplace, which several of you have astutely pointed out is a big problem.
posted by ferret branca at 3:26 PM on January 2, 2020

Is there any possibility of recourse? Or is the rest of management, and HR if there is any, already aware of this and can't/won't do anything?

Think about it this way: leaving a bad job is a form of voting. There's nothing wrong with being a quitter when something needs to be quit, this isn't elementary school. Quit smoking, quit playing on train tracks, quit going to work and letting a bunch of assholes make money off your abuse. Loyalty to an employer isn't noble and it's not valuable, they'd can you in a second if a robot or someone cheaper could do your job. If this manager becomes expensive in the form of repeatedly onboarding new employees who won't take their shit, they'll eventually fix that problem.

If you can take this person out on your way out - emails, voicemails, check the laws in your state about single-party recordings - do that too. If you can do it without losing your job, that's great, but if the system is too entrenched there don't worry about it, leave them to suffer their own consequences for their choices.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:39 PM on January 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

I hate feeling like a quitter when I think about leaving

Hey, don't call yourself names! :) See fallacies #2 and #10. You would not be "a quitter" for extracting yourself from a harmful work environment.
posted by salvia at 3:48 PM on January 2, 2020 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: (Sorry, I will stop threadsitting after this.) Management is aware and is possibly maybe trying to improve things but my boss was recently so openly contemptuous of me that I sort of hit a breaking point (internally; I don’t usually react out loud to my boss in the moment).
posted by ferret branca at 3:55 PM on January 2, 2020

I spent four years working for a mean boss, and it was only two months ago when I changed jobs that I realised how completely I had adapted my behaviours to survive. I now work for a normal boss and am slowly readjusting to not being constantly on edge. I feel every part of teleri025's post veey keenly. People have remarked how happy and relaxed I seem, despite taking on way more responsibility in my new role. The new perspective is shocking. I am now poaching a former teammate and looking forward to seeing them go through a similar change.

You don't owe a thing to a mean boss. Change jobs as soon as you can find one that works for you.
posted by ominous_paws at 4:02 PM on January 2, 2020 [8 favorites]

New job. Also, fantasies regarding how you will tie an anchor on the dude may be helpful. But mostly, leaving.

Sadly, little workplace Hitlers frequently don’t get their comeuppance, either because of nepotism or because correcting their behavior isn’t on anyone above them’s performance goals. So just focus on going elsewhere, maybe with a side order of notifying potential replacements of the nightmare. Good luck to you.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:11 PM on January 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Take a look at the archives of Ask A Manager. Here are a few posts from a cursory search but you can find many many more. Alison's (and the commentariat's) advice is usually to get out, but if you can't, be the better person, stay factual, and rise above.
posted by matildaben at 4:11 PM on January 2, 2020 [6 favorites]

‘Feeling like a quitter’ is an absolute sucker’s game, there is absolutely no more glorious feeling on earth like telling a boss you don’t like to take-and-shove their job, it creates self-respect like few other workplace actions (with the possible exception of joining and being in a union), and I sincerely, at a fundamental level, feel it is the duty of every person who works to walk out of a bad job at least once.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:34 PM on January 2, 2020 [12 favorites]

‘Feeling like a quitter’ is an absolute sucker’s game

Came to say this. The idea that there is something noble about putting up with abuse serves only the abusers and their incompetent enablers.

Look after yourself.
posted by rpfields at 6:02 PM on January 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

For whatever it’s worth, want you join the chorus of “finding a new and better job When faced with a horrible work environment does not make you a quitter.”

I had one such awful experience, and held on for several years before I started looking. I ended up staying in the next job, which was rough but not nearly so rough (and for different reasons) for about the same length of time, which may be longer than I should have, in part thanks to things I internalized at the original rough job. I eventually got an offer to work with people I liked, in a better environment, and that’s really for the better.

This looks like career growth on a resume, not being a quitter. :)
posted by Alterscape at 6:10 PM on January 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I believe more confrontational approaches are possible under some circumstances, but being the primary target of the meanness would make things more difficult.

I had a job that I turned down a much better job to take because I couldn't bear the thought of betraying the very nice boss (when I named a salary figure during the second interview, he said "I wouldn't sully the reputation of my department by paying you so little") who wanted to hire me for the better job, since I wasn't at all sure I would be able to work for anybody for very long at that time, and I ended up with a mean boss.

I wasn't the object of his abuse very often, but I couldn't stand the way he treated two or three of my coworkers after awhile, and I started defending them by saying things like 'he did exactly what you told us all to do two months ago. When did that change?', or 'that's completely unfair; I was there and that's not what happened', or once saying to no one in particular during a particularly egregious tirade, 'there he goes again — can you imagine what it must be like to be one of his kids?' because we all knew he had 2 and 4 year old boys.

And it wasn't long before he went off over some trivial mistake, and before I could decide how to respond, someone else spoke up! He turned and glared at me, and I burst out laughing.

I didn't last much more than a year there, and he was only my boss for three months, but I devoted my exit interview to anecdotes about things he did, and he was demoted by the end of the next week, and fired a few months later — which made me feel a lot worse about those kids, but oh well.
posted by jamjam at 6:57 PM on January 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

About "feeling like a quitter": Life is all about quitting! You can't move onwards and upwards without quitting where you were before. You can't change without giving up who you were before.
Yes that's hard, yes you often have to mourn the thing that you're giving up in some way, but there's not any intrinsic merit in sticking to something that's not working out for you. You can always thank that job for the learning experience as you're finally on the way out of the door for better things, things that will use your abilities to the full instead of smacking you round the head and discouraging you from doing anything interesting whatsoever.
posted by quacks like a duck at 3:13 AM on January 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

Leaving the job worked for me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:25 AM on January 3, 2020

You're in a big city, right? Just find another job. Start Why are you worried you can't "make it work"? Are you worried your boss will badmouth you? Isn't there anyone else who will give you a good reference? You really need to get out of this toxic situation as soon as you can. If a good friend had a spouse or partner who treated them like this boss treats you wouldn't you urge them to leave?! Stop trying to find ways to get along with the creep.
posted by mareli at 5:52 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yeah I had that mentality of invested time/quitters are losers for so long that I basically just had “abuse me” taped to my back for a good chunk of my early career.

I just started a job 3 months ago and I’m looking for another. I wouldn’t call my manager abusive quite yet but they definitely have established a pattern of redoing my code to suit what they think is “best” despite not having trained me on any of the databases I work with. So it’s a “learn as you don’t meet your manager’s personal standards” type situation that is making me feel not so great. Apparently my predecessor just quit without a job lined up and another, senior analyst had to switch teams because of their constant criticism and interference with their work. Nah.

Go where you’re valued. As others have said, loyalty to any company is an obsolete ideal.
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:37 AM on January 3, 2020

Get the hell out of there and don't look back. If management is aware and it's not already fixed, then management is just as much to blame as your boss is. I have seen this happen more than once and the solution is to leave and make sure management knows why.

I have seen wonderful people driven to misery by abusive bosses and I've concluded that life is too short for that!
posted by beandip at 8:26 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

i had a boss like this for 2 years. 2 awful, stressful, xanax-filled years. things magically got better when she was fired.

i used all the tips and tricks there are for dealing with a person like this, and none of it helped. she was determined to be awful to me to make herself look better and more important. i'm sorry to say either your boss has to leave or you do for your situation to get better.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:38 AM on January 3, 2020

Best answer: My physical therapist is always on my case about walking normally even if I have injured a body part. It's almost impossible not to shifting how I walk unconsciously to protect the injured body part. But that shift in turn affects other parts of my body, leading to misalignment and potential additional injury. In the same way, attempting to adapt to a mean boss (partner, family member, etc.) can cause an unhealthy and damaging shift in one's thinking and behavior (as several posters noted above). If you have any other choice, life is too damn short to cater to assholes like your boss. I'm Team New Job all the way. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:27 AM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Meanness is a form of bullying and bullies only respect power. Push back. It's not easy, but it's the only thing the bully will care about.

You may be able to effect small changes by rewarding good behavior. This is the long game, doesn't hurt, but might not help much.
posted by theora55 at 9:36 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might like the books by Robert Sutton - The No Asshole Rule and the follow-up The Asshole Survival Guide.
posted by lafemma at 10:20 AM on January 3, 2020

I left. You won’t feel like a quitter, you’ll feel so good and powerful breaking that news to the boss. It’s a real high!
posted by sallybrown at 8:02 AM on January 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Y’all are right! I’m working on it.
posted by ferret branca at 4:41 PM on January 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Leaving! What a short strange ride it’s been.
posted by ferret branca at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2020 [14 favorites]

« Older Please recommend warm women's winter running...   |   NYC with teenagers? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.