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From the Archives: The Boss From Hell

Whether you are a project manager or a person working on projects you have at least one boss. He or she might be a client, a sponsor, a functional manager or an executive anywhere in the chain of commands above you.

More often than not, as a project manager, you have more than one boss.

A boss is simply someone who has the authority to give you orders; someone in charge of a worker or organization.

I’ve been lucky enough in a long career never to have had a boss from hell. But many, I am told, have them so they probably exist.

What is a boss from hell? It is a person with authority over you who exhibits one or more of the following behaviors:

  • Verbally abusive
  • Passive aggressive
  • Unappreciative
  • Demeaning
  • A liar
  • Incompetent
  • Self-serving at the expense of subordinates
  • Non-caring
  • Cowardly – afraid to stand up for his staff and even himself
  • A workaholic who thinks everyone else should be one too.

For example, a person who yells at you when things don’t go as they think they should. Or, someone who regularly says things like, “Stop whining. Just get it done or I’ll get someone else who can do it.” when you try to explain that hitting the deadline, given current circumstances, is virtually impossible.

Related Article: Managing Your Boss

The boss from hell often combines many of these traits and displays them to make the lives of his or her subordinates miserable. This results in suboptimal performance.

If You Are a Boss From Hell (BFH)

If you are a boss from hell, congratulations for getting this far in this article. Acknowledgment is an import first step in changing negative behavior.

Of course you may be a boss from hell and not realize it. If you want to find out the quality of your “boss-ness,” objectively look at your behavior. Does it match items on the list above? Do people who work for you cringe when you come near? Have people who worked for you quit for no other reason than you and your behavior? These last two are not easy to see. Subordinates are often guarded and won’t even say the real reason they are leaving in exit interviews. Even if they do, the HR people will often not pass the sad truth on. So, it is best to rely on your own self-observation. This takes courage and an intention to continuously get better at what you do. If you own up to your faults and take the effort to change, you will remove yourself from the BFH list.

It may all begin with apologizing when you realize that you have exhibited BFH behavior. You can’t expect to change immediately, but you can recognize and acknowledge what you have done and make the intention to not repeat it in the future.

If you Have a Boss From Hell (BFH)

What can you do if you have a boss from hell who is oblivious to the damage he or she is doing to you and the organization; who just doesn’t care?

The answer depends on your situation, the degree and frequency of hellishness, your ability to withstand abuse and your courage. In any case the first step is to self-reflect. Is it your boss or is it you? Generally, if you find yourself with a BFH from job to job, maybe its you and not them.

One possibility is to fire your boss. This is at the extreme but a wonderful thing to remember as an option. Firing your boss means letting go of the security of your current job and moving on. This can be done by requesting a transfer or by quitting. Once I had a boss and mentor who advised me to make sure I had a year’s worth of money in reserve so that I could feel comfortable leaving a boss or job that was not working out. Short of that you can look for a soft landing place before you say goodbye. Further, don’t act out of fear or anger. Take the time to objectively assess the situation and other options before deciding on your next steps. Consider your mental and physical health and what effect staying in an abusive, demeaning situation will have.

Before you fire your boss you might appeal to your HR group or to someone with some influence over your boss. This is dangerous in organizations where the culture doesn’t vale healthy working relationships. I have seen many organizations in which the person who complains about abuses is considered the problem, even when there is a history of complaints. Sometimes the BFH is well connected and well thought of by his or her superiors – “they deliver the goods” and no one above really cares about how they do it. If the BFH is a client, then there is little chance that this approach will work.

However, if you are in a relatively caring organization you might find that this approach can work. Though, it might take months or even years until some positive change is made.

Before you take these two options, consider the possibility of talking to the boss. A direct, though respectful, confrontation, free from anger and fear, perhaps driven by an understanding that the boss’s behavior is not deliberate, might work. For example, when confronted by an angry or otherwise abusive tirade, you might say “I don’t like to be yelled at. We can discuss this when you can speak to me more respectfully.” This might send the BFH off on an even more violent tirade, or if the BFH is a client a call to yopur boss to have you removed from the project. On the other hand it might result in a calm discussion at a later time. Either way, it will make you feel good to have spoken up for yourself.

Often, what perpetuates BFH behavior is the fear that stops people from speaking up and making their feelings known. That brings us back to the first option – firing your boss. If the worst case scenario is in mind, and it more desirable than taking continued abuse, then you are free.

Project managers are managers. You often have the authority to tell others what to do and how to do it. You are also subject to the authority of your clients, sponsors, and functional managers. The quality of management and leadership has a profound effect on project and organizational performance. Seek to address management style by promoting a servant leadership attitude based on compassion and caring for self and others.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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