Bad Boss BS: “Are you a different species?”
What do you do when you can’t work out what motivates or how to interact effectively with your boss?
Bosses can sometimes feel like a different species. A great boss can look like the next step up the evolutionary ladder, providing a great example of what good looks like that can inspire us to aspire to our own kind of greatness. But a bad boss can leave us feeling like we don’t just speak a different language, but that we’re an entirely different species.
Bad bosses break our connection to them and introduce emotional and intellectual distance which makes interacting and following their lead more difficult. How can we build a bridge to the bad boss so that this gap doesn’t undermine our ability to deliver and develop?
Having a bad boss can be one of the most frustrating things we can encounter in our professional life. And we can fall into the trap of letting our disappointment or difficulties when dealing with a bad boss shape our entire relationship to them. We stop thinking of them as being on the same team — we might even go as far as to think that our version of the world and the one they’ve constructed for themselves are so different, that meaningful communication is impossible. We get into a pattern of behaviour where every interaction just puts more distance between us and them.
But bad bosses aren’t a different species and by thinking of them as such we limit our ability to build rapport and likely miss opportunities to adapt our style beyond our preferences to cope with the difference between us.
In any relationship or collaboration, difference can be an asset rather than an obstacle to overcome. We just need the patience to turn this into an asset, rather than an overhead.
Like most adaptations introduced in this series, our emotions are a good place to start. If your relationship to your boss is defined by disappointment and distance, you’ll find it harder to work with them. Boosting your reserves of empathy can help to remind you that we all bring unique desires, perspectives and preferences to every interaction — bad bosses are no different.
Try treating the boss as a puzzle to solve, rather than an obstacle to overcome. I like to think of this shift in perspective and orientation as almost physically moving me to see the world from their perspective — I imagine sitting on the same side of the desk as them, rather than the opposite side. The difference is huge.
Compare how it feels to talk to your best friend and a bad boss. You’ll likely see much more “flow” in the friendly interaction. This rapport was likely built up over years and has now become unconscious. But there are tricks to building better communication and relationships with anyone. Pay conscious attention to the ‘turn taking’ nature of your interaction and think hard about what is needed at each stage. Picture interactions as a series of transactions. Each is a chance to give the bad boss what they need, and make it clearer to them what you need. Think of it like a rally in tennis — but rather than trying to score points, you’re trying to keep a fun, engaging exchange going. Present just enough challenge to keep the energy in the interaction, but try to adapt your style so that it’s possible (and preferable) for the bad boss to keep things going.
If you’ve had an experience of a bad boss, have a story to share or want advice, you can participate in this series by sending a message to @danramsden or completing this contributor form. I’m hoping to build a community around the experience of bad bosses — and share advice and practical adaptations so that we remain effective. There’ll be at least one post every week. If you have something to share, please get in touch.