What Do You Do When Your Boss Is a Monster?
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to your office — in walks YOUR BOSS! Some bosses are great, exhibiting consistent leadership and empowering employees to succeed. Others are like a Lovecraftian monstrosity, wreaking havoc and destroying productivity. Here’s how you survive the workplace when you report to a monster.
In pop culture, the Blob is a gelatinous mass of intelligent goo that chases you until it smothers and consumes you. It’s everywhere and all you can do is attempt to run away from its ever-increasing reach.
In the workplace, the Blob is the boss who is insecure and doesn’t possess a solid vision. Therefore, they feel the need to micromanage everything, which inadvertently smothers employee creativity and output. You feel as if you can’t escape and are incapable of doing your job since the Blob is always lurking!
I’ve experienced different versions of the Blob during my career. One of the most frustrating was when I was tasked to head a new team pursuing a vertical outside of my company’s traditional wheelhouse. During this corporate realignment, I was asked to report to a recently hired VP who had no experience in our new vertical. She wasn’t sure what we should measure or how to gauge success. So, I was asked to measure and report on everything I did. It was a stifling experience that left me feeling the need to run from our office screaming.
How to Handle the Blob
- Don’t run from but speak to the Blob. I told my Blob she was limiting our ability to do our jobs. I told her my team was as dedicated to making things work as she was. She and I spent a week crafting metrics we both agreed would be indicative of performance and would be regularly updated in our CRM.
- Try to help manage the Blob’s fears. I strove to anticipate changes in our growth trajectory. If I thought we might not hit a target, I let her know immediately. I also immediately discussed how we’d address the miss. She needed to see I was on top of things. Be proactive so the Blob doesn’t chase you!
- Over-communicate with the Blob. I regularly wrote short emails giving brief updates. Even though we shared a calendar and I always updated our sales pipeline and projections, it made my life easier to rattle off a quick email such as “Meeting with ABC Company today. Wish us luck!” Afterward, I might send another note saying, “Meeting went well. Next steps are a proposal.” All this information was available in our sales and marketing tools, but my Blob felt better receiving my emails.
The Invisible Man
In H.G. Wells’s novel, Griffin is a scientist who discovers a way to render himself invisible and then goes mad, exercising random acts of violence as he makes his way haphazardly through the world. The terrifying aspect of the invisible man is you can’t see him until you’re a victim of his chaos.
At your workplace, The Invisible Man, TIM for short, is a boss who disappears at times and exhibits a disturbing lack of leadership, only to reappear later and introduce chaos into your job description. TIM is unreliable, unpredictable, out of touch with what’s happening in the office, hard to contact, and can make you look bad in the eyes of your organization.
I’ve had a couple of TIMs in my career and both were infuriating. My recent TIM came into my life as the new CEO of my company after a merger. I was working in London and TIM was back in the States. He had a lot on his plate and even though we were growing, London was a smaller part of our revenues. Thus, my work was a lower priority. TIM routinely missed our weekly phone calls, didn’t answer emails, and wouldn’t respond to the voicemails I left. TIM is an example of scary bad leadership.
How to Handle TIM
- Much as you do with the Blob, over-communicate with TIM. I emailed TIM about every meeting we had, every objective we hit, and every win. I made certain the only way he could claim to be unaware of what we were doing was if he chose to ignore us.
- Maintain all enterprise reporting, pipelines, and shared metrics with current data. If TIM is nowhere to be found, create exposure for yourself within your organization using the tools at hand.
- Communicate directly with others in the company. I began cc’ing our CFO and COO on my email updates to TIM. This was a final resort after several months of TIM being invisible. It was the equivalent of throwing powder into the air so everyone could see The Invisible Leader. This led to others in my company reaching out asking if I needed help and congratulating me when we closed new deals.
Dr. Frankenstein is a brilliant scientist who discovers a revolutionary means of bringing inanimate matter to life. Frank’s ambition and ability are only matched by Frank’s narcissism, and these traits left unchecked unleash tragedy upon the world.
At work, Frank creates a new business, bringing to life an idea and having the ability to grow it to monstrous proportions. Frank always knows best, trusting Frank over all others. Frank also assumes things work a certain way without taking the time to understand how things actually work.
As a veteran of multiple West Coast tech and marketing startups, I’ve seen many Franks. My first Frank’s childish self-adulation almost scuttled our successful business. With no real management experience, Frank used ideas from movies such as Glengarry Glen Ross and the Boiler Room as his model for managing employees. Frank also felt a compulsive need to establish he was the smartest person in the room, which lost us several contracts along the way. Frank’s ego almost destroyed us.
How to Handle Frankenstein
- Humor Frank. Frank loves Frank’s ideas and Frank appreciates people who think like Frank. You can maintain a good relationship if you find ways to tie your ideas into Frank’s way of thinking. I talked to Frank about how he landed our first contract and his approach to growing the business. I then mirrored some of his successful strategies. I demonstrated that I appreciated his philosophy. By appearing similar to Frank, Frank thought I was smart and listened to me more.
- Be prepared for Frank’s hubris. During a call with our biggest client, Frank rolled out some tough guy talk he picked up while watching one of the coffee is for closers scenes in his business movies. He liked the idea of being a hard negotiator and copied what he’d seen in Hollywood’s version of the business world. As the client was mine, I’d warned them about Frank’s eccentricities and they ignored his puerile antics. I anticipated his egomaniacal behavior and prepped my contacts for it. Make sure you’ve mad scientist-proofed your business dealings when Frank is around.
- Don’t allow Frank to make you invisible. Frank’s ego might require him to minimize the contributions of others. I recognized that and made every effort to let my colleagues know what we were doing in the sales department. I announced our sales victories over group emails. I took our design team out for drinks after the successful launch of a new client. Frank was too busy to mingle with the hoi polloi. I networked within my own company so my contributions, and my career, wouldn’t disappear into the mythology of Frank.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Jekyll was a pleasant, respectable, and intellectual doctor. Mr. Hyde was depraved and dangerous. Jekyll and Hyde are two very different sides of one person and you can’t be certain which side you’re going to see today.
The workplace version of this monster isn’t all that different from the one in Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic novella. You are dealing with one person who exhibits two different personalities. The dread you feel about them is the unpredictability of how they will respond on a given day.
I’ve had a couple of encounters with the Jekyll-Hyde beast at work. The most clear-cut example was the proprietor of a restaurant where I was hired as a chef. The owner had never worked in the hospitality industry and thought owning a café would be fun. She didn’t realize all the work that first must occur before things can be fun. She enjoyed greeting and chatting with the guests, but she hated bookkeeping, doing inventory, and restocking supplies and produce. All the things she hated are the most important things for owning a restaurant. As a result, she was everyone’s friend when she could sit at the bar sipping an espresso and greet patrons, but when she had to work she was a monster who insulted, undermined, and publicly humiliated the staff.
How to Handle Jekyll-Hyde
- Don’t take Hyde personally. I noted how one barista dealt with the boss’s outbursts. She ignored them. She learned our Hyde was crumbling under the pressure of not knowing what to do. She shrugged off the screaming as the misdirected vitriol of someone trying to cope. It’s not professional, but they’re angry with the situation, not you.
- Help Jekyll deal with what triggers Hyde. I began looking for ways to help our boss manage her tasks. Inventory is usually the purview of the chef, but our boss felt she should do it herself. I convinced her it was my domain because I was in touch with inventory all day. Furthermore, I persuaded her to turn over the profit and loss of the kitchen to me. I could run the books for the kitchen, leaving her to account only for the bar and front of house. My helping her gave all of us more Jekyll and less Hyde.
- Talk to Jekyll about Hyde. This is tricky because Jekyll can get defensive. I invited my boss to coffee and had a calm conversation about what was working and what wasn’t. I thanked her for all her help and put a reasonably positive spin on things. I also stressed our need to maintain professional decorum. I explained how humiliating an employee in front of staff or patrons does nothing except create new job openings we have to fill.
There are many other monster bosses out there — devils, vampires, Godzilla, but these four — the Blob, Jekyll and Hyde, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Frankenstein are some of the most common in my experience. Often times, you get two monsters for the price of one, but you can handle any terrible creature if you stop to identify it. The good news is, monsters don’t need to be slain, only managed, and managing monsters isn’t difficult if you understand the keys to making your monster less terrible.