A few years ago, I was stuck in a job I didn’t enjoy. It wasn’t a bad gig, but I’m the type of person who needs to have purpose in my work, and with this job, I couldn’t find that purpose no matter how hard I tried.
It didn’t bother me too much at the time as I’d been through a difficult period in my life, and had decided a career change was what I needed. I saw this role as a way to get some experience in something I wasn’t familiar with, as well as a chance to grow my professional career.
What I hadn’t planned for was that I’d end up working for one of the most toxic bosses I’d ever known. Fortunately, it turned out to be an opportunity for enormous professional growth, despite it being a pretty harrowing experience at the time.
Most of us have experienced a bad boss at some point in our careers.
Mine was a master manipulator. Deceptive and incredibly smart, she had worked her way up the ladder over a 20 year period which resulted in her managing quite a large team of professionals that were much more qualified than she was — a problem if you lack basic leadership skills.
She was insecure which resulted in a culture of bullying and intimidation:
- She would subject us to painfully long periods of silence that could last from a few hours to days.
- She was irritable, unapproachable and aggressive when she had to deal with a difficult situation.
- She got involved in office politics and seemed to thrive on the daily gossip (she even gossiped about people in her own team).
- She bullied people she didn’t like and even managed a few out of the business (being very careful not to bring any attention to herself).
Being subjected to this kind of behaviour, I admit that my initial response wasn’t great. My productivity took a nosedive and my attitude changed for the worse. I was not in a good place.
It wasn’t long before I was singled out as a target. And that’s when everything changed.
The negative attention
It was almost as if she’d planned the whole thing. By being a shitty boss, she knew people were going to respond negatively. When they did, she singled them out as targets. That’s what happened to me.
To her, I became the most useless person in the world. I was often reminded of my incompetence and told I’d never be able to progress in my career — it’s quite an experience to hear someone say those things to you.
It’s important to remember here, that everyone’s circumstances are different. I guess most people would have just left the business and gone onto to something else. But for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t in a position to do this. So I stayed.
But it wasn’t just about staying and taking her shit. It became about rising above her toxicity and coming out better for it in the end.
Here’s what I did.
I decided to leave
Although I couldn’t get out immediately, I still made a commitment to leave. I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but I got into the job market and began looking around.
Even though I was desperate to get out, I wasn’t going to take the first job that came up. I had to get out on my terms, which meant carefully choosing the job I would do next. I took my time looking for the right thing and accepted the fact that I might not get out as fast as I’d have liked to.
I did more
I always try to do more than is expected of me. By ‘expected’ I mean achieving defined goals and objectives that are set by a boss through a structured management model within an organization.
As a side note, when you’re running your businesses, these kinds of expectations don’t exist — you have to do as much as needed to make your business a success.
When I was managing my toxic boss, I made a point of going above and beyond her expectations of me. I became more innovative, more creative and more productive. I created new ways of doing things for the team that she couldn’t ignore. I allowed her to take credit for some of them, but kept a few ‘aces’ up my sleeve, pitching them at just the right moment.
I stopped blaming myself
One of the main problems with toxic bosses is they have a way of making you feel like shit. They can make any bad situation your fault — sometimes to the point where you end up blaming yourself for a mistake that wasn’t even yours in the first place.
Once I realized what was going on, I stopped blaming myself if things didn’t go to plan. I knew I was good at my job, which gave me the confidence to believe in myself and my capabilities.
I built a network
I already had a strong external network, but it wasn’t related to the industry I was working in. I made a conscious effort to build allies from my immediate surroundings. I found people I could trust — if only to get some advice. It was liberating to now I wasn’t alone, and that there were people out there to help, even if it was just to listen.
Nothing comes easy. Once we accept that, then the inevitable obstructions and failures of life wouldn’t be so frustrating to deal with. We’d be less disappointed in ourselves and use those opportunities to grow. Preparing ourselves mentally for the hardships is most of the battle.
I was determined not to be a victim. So I chose not to be. It was that easy.
If you’re working for a toxic boss, get out. If you can’t get out, be better at what you do and make yourself the most indispensable person on your team.