More Strategies for Coping with a Mean Boss

The comments section of last week’s post included some impassioned responses. There were tales of bad leaders, incompetent HR departments, and mean bosses—male and female. As much as it’s important to address the cultural change that’s needed to stop mean men (and women) from getting a free pass, let alone encouragement, to behave as they do, mobility in one’s career is a considerable privilege. Whether it’s because of shifts in the industry you work in, your family situation, geographical location, or any number of other factors, leaving a bad boss isn’t often an option. Certain workers in highly sought-after professions and in particular circumstances (skilled software engineers in San Francisco, for instance) may be able to be as picky as they like, but we all have bills to pay. Many employees have to stick it out until they have better options to choose from, and even those of us with a great deal of autonomy in our work come across mean men from time to time. I may not report to a mean man, but I’ve worked with plenty of them and have learned to get in their heads to better negotiate my dealings with them. When I feel myself getting emotionally wrangled into a client’s need for control and desire to manipulate, I redirect my thinking from how he’s pushing my buttons to what might be pushing his. As I’ve discussed, the need to control is often fear based. In the mean man’s mind, he’s protecting himself from perceived threats to his fragile internal self-control system.

But manipulation or control through verbal abuse takes two, regardless of who is at fault. “He acts mean, and I respond to his meanness,” is how we might sum up the situation. But seizing opportunities to break the dynamic between a mean man and his target may require turning attention inward. You may need to look at the elements that have led you—usually unknowingly—to participate in this lopsided exchange.

This isn’t to say that victims should be blamed. But over the years I have seen many cases in which someone unconsciously gives a mean man an opening for his controlling and manipulating behavior to manifest. If you’ve been in these situations, you may not realize in the moment that someone’s demands are unreasonable and that giving in to them will pull you into a toxic tango. You may believe that in responding to your boss’s demands, you’re just being a good employee. You may even be fully aware of the abusive behavior but unable to resist it; your reactions feel automatic. Chances are there is also a considerable power imbalance between you and your boss.

We all have many layers of personal history that affect how we respond to abusive behavior: the way we were treated as kids, our self-image, the burdens we carry from our past. The behavior of those around us can tap into a pure, raw emotion that has been stored away and simmering for some time. We all have our buttons that get pushed. Some of us have more buttons than others; some of us have buttons that need barely a tap to engage. I have learned to control my emotional reactions to these men by consciously thinking about the needs that drive them to act so inexcusably. Often, I find myself thinking how pathetic their internal machinations must be in that moment, how their sense of helplessness and vulnerability (despite their tough exterior) is probably a theme in their daily lives. Trying to get inside their heads always helps me get inside my own; I’ve learned to better understand my own buttons and what happens when they get pushed. An awareness of this cause and effect often tends to provide me greater control in the midst of managing, say, a malignant narcissist.

What are the triggers that show someone’s vulnerability to these men? Psychologists have identified a few of the most persistent personality characteristics:

  • Very high need for approval
  • High level of self-doubt
  • Low tolerance for conflict; strong desire to keep the peace
  • Fear of anger
  • Tendency to take responsibility for others’ lives

In moderation, these are typically admirable traits; they can also set us up for potential abuse.

Building off my strategies from last week’s post and asking, “What is my part in this? What button is being pushed by this troubled person?” can be a difficult but empowering exercise. It can help you find your own reactive patterns to situations in which there is an imbalance of power and you are faced with someone’s attempt to control or manipulate you.