Not Done, Boss

Devashish Chakravarty   Delhi     Print Edition: October 2011

H for Hitler, A for Arrogant, R for Rascal, I for Idiot - Hari! Hari Sadu! This famed abusive boss from a popular advert for a job portal probably got what was coming to him from a subordinate and left many disgruntled employees wishing they could likewise. Of course, the braveheart in the ad did have another job to bank on as he gleefully insulted his tormentor.

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In fact, a study found that the number one reason for employees changing jobs was a bad boss. However, it is not easy to quit when there are multiple EMIs to pay. Not to mention that jobs aren't always available. When faced with a difficult boss or colleague, remember that quitting is just one of your options.

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IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM
While it is not illegal to be a difficult boss, discrimination, defamation and harassment are definitely against the law and not something that you have to live with. If you think such is the case, first use the remedies available to you within the organisation to seek redress.

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Most companies have stringent policies on such behaviour and so even an implied threat of a complaint will get immediate results. On the other hand, difficult and abusive behaviour, the more common problem, is difficult to address. Dealing with constant criticism, public insults, denial of opportunities and even unfair performance appraisals will require subtler and more mature reactions.

DEALING WITH IT
Once you've identified the problem, be willing to separate yourself from your work identity. This is the identity that each person brings to work to make office interactions predictable. Your identity at work should be professional, friendly, rational and calm. Your feelings and emotional choices should be kept separate from a work identity, which is merely a role you play.

All office interactions, including unpleasant ones, are to be handled by that identity of yours. This distinction makes it much easier to deal with situations that seem unfair and are impossible to deal with.

Thereafter, prepare responses to the most difficult situations you can imagine. If the abuse is in the form of criticism, do not acknowledge the abuse but convey a sincere desire for improvement.

The response must be delivered in a neutral and respectful tone, devoid of anger or sarcasm. Most times, a straightforward 'You are right, I am sorry' is all that takes to defuse an incident. Such responses deter the abuser over time as it does not yield the expected emotional outburst.

DEALING IT RIGHT

Boss troubles at work
Open Up Your Mind: No one is right or wrong all the time. Neither Hari Sadu nor Steve Jobs (another challenging boss). There may be valuable inputs couched in unpalatable criticism. Best to approach every interaction with a receptive frame.

Boss troubles at work
Pay Close Attention: Pause for a moment to shut down the voice in your head that is busy constructing a response to the inputs. Listen to it completely and respect the communication before you evaluate.

Content Over Context: Unlike all other interactions where context is supreme, focus on the content of the communication. That will keep your mind off the accumulated negativity. The inputs may help you make improvements at work and increase your efficiency.

Boss troubles at work
Take a Time-out: There is no need to respond immediately. Request for time to think through in a less agitated emotional state. You stand to gain much from a calm mind.

Boss troubles at work
Consult Someone You Trust: Make sure he is not afraid to share an honest opinion. Then discuss it with the boss or colleague when there are no distractions.

Boss troubles at work
Agree on an Action Plan: Include measurable actions and firm deadlines. Get commitments on the resources you need as well as contingency plans. Follow up regularly to make sure the plan is on track.
If this does not work, choose to discuss it. You can seek suggestions from others who have successfully negotiated similar situations or dealt with the same person. You can even opt for discussing it directly with the individual. Here, be professional and avoid confrontation. Be prepared to discuss difficult topics, including your work performance.

All the strengths and foibles of being a human apply to bosses as well. A relationship with an abusive boss can be managed the same way as other situations where parties have unequal power. Be proactive and not reactive in communication.

Seek to build a personal rapport beyond your work. Actions that make your boss's work easier and make him look good are likely to dissuade unwarranted criticism. Avoid referring to the boss in a derogatory manner in his absence and do not rant about him to your colleagues. Such discussions reinforce the vicious cycle, making it impossible for circumstances to change for the better.

If the discussion leads nowhere, you can resort to contacting a higher authority who can influence the situation. To achieve a positive outcome would require a great measure of tact and even luck. Remember that your boss' value to the firm is probably higher than your own.

In case the worker is perceived to be a poor performer with a negative attitude, the complaint can backfire. This could result in it becoming untenable for the worker to continue with the present team. In such situations, it is advisable to garner additional support from others in the organisation and have documented evidence to strengthen your case.

Only consider the option of changing bosses if nothing else works. Is the situation bad enough to make it worthwhile for you to move? Consider changing teams within the same firm. Always be on the look out for opportunities that take you to other teams and team leaders. Consider your options in the job market.

While seeking other opportunities, avoid discussing your boss as a major reason for change. This reflects badly on the job-seeker's people skills. Once you have a plan B in place, you will be more confident while facing your boss. Then, you may find that your employer is not such a difficult person to handle after all.

A major part of our waking hours is spent at work. Anything that makes it unpleasant or stressful cannot be just wished away and needs to be addressed. A difficult work environment resultant of an impossible boss is one of them.

To start with, focus on the fact that, irrespective of how others choose to exercise their freedom of speech, you have complete control over how you react. Finally, leave work issues at the workplace when you go home and remember that who you are is much more than just your work.

(The writer is CEO, Quetzal Verify, an HR solutions company run by IIM-Ahmedabad alumni)

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