Thrive, Even When Your Boss Is Out To Get You
The wrong way and the right way to respond
“You are not everyone’s cup of tea.”
It’s a crushing blow to discover that people don’t like you. Inevitably, we’ll find people in life that we don’t mesh with. But when that person is your boss, it can be alarming and a threat to your livelihood.
Throughout my career, I’ve had a series of excellent bosses. Bosses who were supportive, encouraged me, and gave me opportunities to grow. Some 90% have been good or great, which is remarkable. I’ve been lucky.
Several years ago, a turn of events changed a positive working relationship with a boss into a toxic one. In the six years we’d worked together, we’d had some bumps, but she and I had built a department from nothing in a few short years and had a “speak freely” arrangement. In fact, she had just nominated me for the highest recognition in the organization for outstanding performance.
Late one night, my boss, a rising star, emailed and asked me to do something that went against every professional instinct in my body. She wanted me to take action that reversed a well-thought-out strategy on which she, other leaders, and I had agreed months ago. Rather than ask her to discuss the next day or offer rationale for delaying action, I responded tersely.
In short, I refused a directive. “I completely disagree and respectfully decline to do it,” were my fated words.
It was late. I was tired and annoyed. I made a terrible mistake by speaking a little too “freely.” And she would make me regret it every day for the next 10 months.
My luck had just run out.
What a difference a day makes
By the next morning, I knew that the relationship was irreparably damaged. Overnight, she sent out a series of emails, signaling to me that she was bypassing me on the issue at hand…and other issues. To her (and many), insubordination is the unpardonable sin.
I apologized by email and, later, in person. I offered to help execute the change in strategy, but she demurred. When she returned to the office a day later, she made it crystal clear that a seismic shift had occurred. Her demeanor to me changed completely. She would not make eye contact, any discussion with me was clipped, and she continued to bypass me, her senior staff person, on key communication.
In addition, she began making disparaging remarks about and to me in meetings. Little digs and big accusations in front of colleagues and superiors. In fact, the behavior was so egregious, one of her colleagues gently called out the bullying in a meeting and asked her to stay after to discuss.
While I greatly appreciated the kindness and professionalism of this intervention, it only made the situation worse. My boss accused me of campaigning against her (I hadn’t) and became suspicious of any conversations I had with others. She asked our shared administrative assistant to monitor my calendar for meetings and report back to her on anything that seemed out of the ordinary.
She rescinded the nomination for recognition. She started requiring a weekly progress report from me, which she asked of no one else. Administrative support was revoked. And when my performance evaluation came due, she unleashed her anger at me with a scathing review, in polar opposition to the five stellar reviews I’d received previously.
She made no secret of the fact that she was out to get me.
What not to do
A natural response to trauma is terror. And terror does not lead to good decision making. Aside from the obvious preventive measures [don’t be insubordinate, don’t answer provocative emails late at night, don’t be impertinent], here’s what I wish I had known at that time.
Don’t assume it will blow over. For weeks, I put my head down, worked harder than ever, and tried to demonstrate full compliance with every task. With time, I thought the wound would heal. This turned out to be wasted time and effort. Her mind was made up, and, for someone with her personality, this only made me seem weak and accelerated her abuse.
Don’t believe that professional behavior will win out. My boss’s behavior was unprofessional, petty, and vindictive. In my heart, I knew this but felt that if I remained professional, things would work out. I failed to accept the reality of the situation fully.
Life — and especially life in the modern workplace — is not a morality play. Good does not always win over evil. Bad behavior is often rewarded. It may not be right, but failure to accept the reality of this fact only prolongs the pain.
As I’ve told my kids 1,000 times, there’s no such thing as fair.
Don’t expect assistance from HR. When she and I met to review my performance appraisal, I was beyond my limit. I could not bear to hear the distorted view of my performance and told her I could not continue with the review without someone else present. A new meeting was arranged with an HR representative in the room. The HR representative did nothing to promote discussion. She nodded heartily to everything my boss said and stared vacantly at me when I asked a question or politely suggested eliminating loaded words like “emotional.”
My mistake…I have been around long enough to know that HR is never objective. The cards are always stacked in favor of those in power.
Don’t expect assistance from the organization. Likewise, when I wrote a rebuttal of the review in the “employee’s comments” section of the review outlining my accomplishments and providing context for the criticisms, I was called in to a meeting with a senior unit manager. I thought he was concerned about the bullying behavior I’d experienced. No. Not at all. He applied significant pressure for me to remove my comments from the review because it made the unit look bad. Finally comprehending the power imbalance I was caught up in, I complied.
If your boss is out to get you, you are on your own. Accept that early and act accordingly.
What to do
Try to negotiate a truce. After the review, I set up a one-on-one meeting with my boss. I made this offer flat out: “This is no longer working. I will begin looking for another job, but it may take six months to find something. It would be easier for me to find another position if you would soften some of the language in the review.” She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m not changing a word.” So, at this stage — when she was feeling and savoring every ounce of power she held — this strategy did not work.
But if I had approached her earlier, things may have gone better. She likes to be in charge and to be seen as the power broker. If I had gone to her to ask for her “help” in solving a problem, she would likely have responded differently.
Negotiation is always worth trying. Think long and hard about what approach will work best with your nemesis.
Maintain faith in yourself and your skills. Public humiliation is demeaning. Disparaging remarks in meetings cut me to the core and made me question my skills and abilities. I was in a funk for weeks when it began. The only way out was to review my strengths and accomplishments, self-coach, and regroup with others who were familiar with my work to discuss how to move forward. Develop a list of core strengths and solid accomplishments, review it, and remind yourself frequently.
Assess (and reassess) the situation. I needed to own my part in the falling out. It was not the first time in my life I’d been too outspoken (nor the last, sadly). I needed to recognize that I had played a role in the problem and hold myself responsible. Actions have consequences that we cannot control. Likewise, it was equally informative to recognize the poor leadership my boss exhibited. We can learn from others’ mistakes, too, and being on the receiving end of ugliness can help you set a path to avoid behaving likewise.
Work tirelessly to find another job. It’s imperative to realize (quickly) that the jig is up. The ship has sailed. You need to move on quickly. I looked for other jobs immediately but, when nothing emerged, I became complacent and let up on my search. Then after another incident of public criticism, I was spurred on for another round of applications. My sense of urgency would ebb and flow because I liked the work. Keeping a constant sense of urgency is tough, but moving on is Job #1. Make it your top priority, every day.
Continue to do great work. Even if you’re dispirited, keep your head up and work hard. Co-workers (who will have inevitably noticed your fall from grace) will expect you to slack off or display a bad attitude. Surprise them all by being professional and dedicated. At a key point in my descent, we had a deadline for a proposal that would determine the department’s fate for the next five years. I was in charge of that project and pushed relentlessly to meet all deadlines and insisted on top-quality work. In fact, I drove the final proposal to the FedEx office myself (and always suspected my boss had someone follow me to make sure it was mailed).
The difference now was that I was no longer doing it for the team or my boss. I did it for me. Focusing on doing great work can help you restore faith in your own capabilities.
Walk away with dignity and grace. After 10 months of searching and several blind alleys, I finally found another position. It was not exactly the job I wanted, but the work environment was 100% healthier and I had new levels of flexibility at a time when that was helpful in my personal life. Best of all, my new manager recognized my talents and appreciated my experience. With great delight, I submitted my resignation.
Now, the tables were turned. My boss needed someone to manage a big project coming up, and she attempted to negotiate with my new department to keep me working part-time at the old job. I expressed my deep preference to make a clean break, and my new manager supported me fully. I was polite and thorough in transitioning tasks to people, and following an awkward, minimalistic going-away gathering (Diet Coke and cupcakes) where my boss was forced to say a few nice things, I nearly cartwheeled out of the office.
The relief was immense. And, in an uncanny act of symmetry, the day I resigned, we discovered that the proposal submitted months before was successful. The department would be funded another five years. I left knowing I’d made a difference.
Now it’s time to thrive
Once you extricate yourself from a toxic work environment, you can focus on recovering and finding new success. Listen, learn, and pour your energies into a new role. Savor the fresh start and use it to grow.
I continue to believe that things happen for a reason. I’m right where I’m supposed to be, and it’s up to me to make the most of it.
My former boss’s star continued to rise. She is now one of the most powerful leaders in the organization. Without the fall from grace, I would likely have been taken along on the ride. But knowing what I now know about her, I’m happy not to be affiliated with her.
I occasionally forward an article to her that I know she’d be interested in and have sent her congratulations on various promotions. She responds politely, and even asked about my kids once.
Holding on to ill will serves no purpose. I have learned a lot from the experience. And, in a small, untainted corner of my heart, I hope she has, too.
© Tina L. Smith, 2020
About the author: Tina L. Smith works by day as an administrator of an academic medical research program and by night as a writer and a partner in her boyfriend’s commercial photography business.
(Note from writer: Writing this article brought up a lot of difficult memories and inspired this poem.)