Bad Boss BS: “This is a chance to be resilient.”
What is resilience? How can a bad boss warp our definition and put us in danger? And how can we balance protection, loss and growth when times are tough?
This is the first Bad Boss Blog Post to feature guest content. Along with my own ideas I’ve found a way to add in a fresh perspective from the brilliant Katherine Bradshaw.
Resilience is sometimes used by bad bosses to excuse things not being right. Resilience, while a useful set of behaviours to have mastered, can be easy to mischaracterise and misunderstand. And a bad boss can rewrite our understanding of what it means to be resilient — putting us in danger of burning out, or worse. So, how can you cultivate a healthy understanding of what it means to be resilient, even when a boss misuses the idea to try to justify unreasonable expectations?
What is resilience?
Having a bad boss often requires resilience. And finding ways to cope with that situation is one of the ideas behind the bad boss blog series. Reframing challenges as a chance to learn a new skill, behaviour or technique — or as a chance to reflect and learn something about our behaviours, preferences or biases means setbacks can possess the potential for something positive. But, only talking about resilience as “treating difficulties as opportunities to learn” doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
Kath says: Resilience is important. It helps us to be consistent, calm and level in the face of change and turbulence. Things like healthy boundaries, a good peer support structure, and clear communication are a big part of that. Digging into the depths of resilience is definitely an opportunity for growth. But I do take some issue with resilience as a competency, because it can have a toxicity to it.
In a ‘bad boss’ situation, it can be used as a get out of jail free card by putting the onus on the individual to endure a hard and sometimes unacceptable situation. And that means ignoring the underlying cause by allowing the person (or systems) actually causing difficulties to avoid taking responsibility.
Instead, the person actually affected by it — who at this point will be feeling pretty depleted — is expected to endure it as a measure of resilience. We should be looking at the systems and ways of working — and building empathy and nuance into those structures — rather than asking individuals to shoulder the fall-out under the guise of a soft skill.
As much as it’s about perseverance, resilience is also about change. The narrow definition of “challenging learning opportunities” puts too positive a spin on situations that require resilience. It only hints at the fact that some situations are impossible to “survive” without them changing us. Change can be traumatic. While a dictionary, or a bad boss, might describe resilience as “the ability to spring back into shape” and bad bosses only talk about bouncebackability, I don’t think this is a helpful or healthy way of thinking about resilience. Plus, “bouncebackability” isn’t even a real word.
Some events change our “shape”, and it’s unreasonable to think we can adopt the same shape as before. Resilience is about acknowledging that we’re constantly changing and that sometimes that means we lose as much as we gain.
Kath says: If I’ve drawn on resilience for any reason, I don’t particularly want to bounce back into my old ways of being or seeing the world. I don’t want to ignore the hurt or anger or sadness, or whatever else has come up through that situation. That’s where the opportunity lies in resilience-making situations.
Sometimes it’s about protection; establishing boundaries to exercise my right to curate what I do or don’t let into my world. Sometimes it’s about changing my mindset, and the story I’m telling myself about a particular situation or person. Sometimes it’s about acknowledging the fact that I’m human, and can’t possibly be a bottomless well of resilience. And almost always, it’s about self-awareness, self-forgiveness, and self-care (and not the fluffy face-mask kind).
The final ingredient we can add to our understanding of resilience is that some situations are just unacceptable. Sometimes resilience is having the confidence to remove yourself from a situation.
Kath says: It’s not always a conscious decision to ‘be resilient’. Sometimes we have the luxury of time and foresight to gather our resilience skills just before they’re needed, but often not. They’re usually mobilised when we’re in the depths of depletion; when resilience is something we have to take on in order to simply get by. Resilience is a learning opportunity after the fact. But it’s often about survival — whether metaphorical or literal — in the moment.
Occasionally we are able to anticipate and plan for the need to be resilient in the first place. We all have to make hard life decisions sometimes — ones that we know will cause short-term turbulence like changing job, moving house, or leaving a relationship. They all require resilience. Anticipating that — and setting up the structures to support resilience — is something that a good boss should be ready to mobilise around.
Prioritising “protection” sometimes requires as much confidence and resilience as “sticking it out” in a current context that isn’t sustainable. The uncertainty of changing an unhealthy situation can be daunting — so having the ability to spot when something is unacceptable and unsustainable is just as valuable as the ability to draw on strength to persist in the face of a challenge.
A bad boss can fail to balance these three views of resilience, or promote one definition at the expense of the others. But there are things we can do to help cultivate a more helpful and healthy view of resilience in ourselves and our boss.
We should expect our boss to prioritise our safety — but we might have to help them spot times when that safety is at risk. Sometimes, when we’re struggling we can use indirect language or even avoid raising issues because we think it might reflect badly on us. But it’s actually a strength to be able to recognise when you’re struggling. Having the language and confidence to enable you to describe these times, and the factors involved is another core strength.
Kath says: I think this is where great one-to-ones come in. Setting a precedent for emotional safety in readiness for those really tough times is crucial. Bad bosses see those one-to-ones as transactional moments. Good bosses use them as opportunities for genuine connection, which is the ideal setting for talking about hard situations before they get overwhelming.
When you feel like a situation is unsustainable, talk about it. Try to reflect on what factors you’re finding difficult and talk about these. Make suggestions that would remove the risks — and where you’ve felt the need to act first, be clear on what you’ve done and why.
If your boss doesn’t care about you, and suggests that resilience is designed to “maintain productivity,” then explain that you’re thinking about the long term over a short term sacrifice in productivity. And then work out a plan to remove yourself permanently from having to work with such a bad boss.
Challenging events change us. But it can sometimes take a long time and a lot of effort to process and understand the change. A supportive boss will recognise this, give us time and use a coaching approach to help us both reflect and understand how events have affected us and what it might mean for the future. A bad boss probably won’t do this. We might need to find other sources of support to help us reflect. And we’ll probably need to point out the things that have changed to stop the bad boss operating under assumptions that everything is the same.
Kath says: Resilience is sometimes socialised as ‘putting a face on it’. But a measure of good resilience isn’t about retaining a facade of ‘everything’s absolutely fine’.
Sometimes it feels like we’re failing at resilience if we’re not able to uphold the illusion that everything is ticking along nicely despite the turbulence beneath. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bad bosses perpetuate that toxic positivity. Good bosses role model the fact that sometimes, something has to give.
And in some situations, everything has to give . Work has to give, upbeat attitudes have to give, anything ‘non-essential’ has to give — because none of us have endless stores of resilience to smooth over the cracks when shit hits the fan. We can’t outrun our own break-ability, and resilience acknowledges that.
Some changes can be hard to talk about — so if we find it difficult to talk directly about incidents or their impact on us, we should tell the boss this. Removing ourselves from conversations is sometimes another example of the first ingredient of resilience — protection. But because bosses usually have some form of duty of care for us, we might need to find a way to make them aware of changes we’ve experienced or need.
I’m a natural optimist. But I also know that talking about growth in the context of resilience can be insensitive. Some situations and experiences are unacceptable, and so offering advice to “sort for positives” and “find learning opportunities” can ring hollow. Good bosses might fall into this trap — but hopefully you’ll have built up the trust and openness to have a conversation about the impact of this message. Bad bosses might miss the fact that you’ve learnt anything, and focus only on something not going to plan.
Kath says: ‘You’re so strong’ is a message I’ve encountered when it comes to growth and resilience, but I don’t find it particularly helpful. I want people — and my boss — to acknowledge and validate my brokenness. I don’t think growth can happen until the broken pieces have been seen and heard.
The positive is definitely there, but it doesn’t exist in spite of the hard stuff. It’s there because of it. It’s better to bring that out into the light instead of leaping directly towards the comfort of seeing the good in a situation. Acknowledging what happened (and giving it sufficient air time, even if it is just a good old moan) gives a solid foundation for moving forward.
Resilience is about extracting something positive out of even the hardest of experiences. Linking it to the growth mindset has helped me in the past to move beyond the negative aspects of something and find a positive — even if it’s just being better able to spot the signals of a bad situation in the future. If you’ve got a bad boss who makes it hard to recognise and reflect on the lessons that come from setbacks, find another coach, mentor or peer who can support you in extracting the lessons from challenges or setbacks.
Resilience is one of the those words in professional life that can feel like jargon. It can come with different definitions and assumptions attached. And people can talk about it as an asset without being clear on what they think it means. Never let a boss undermine your confidence or place you in unhealthy and unsustainable situations through an appeal to resilience. Feel confident enough to question what resilience means for them — and then tell them about your current experiences. Approach this discussion with an open mind. But carry forward the confidence to question when you think things are unacceptable. When we’re clear about our expectations, capacity and experiences we can have richer conversations about resilience. And by encouraging bosses to think about protection, loss and growth we’re more likely to stay happy, motivated and productive.
Katherine Bradshaw (also known as Kath in reported speech) is a design leader from the UK and the Creative Director for Content Design at the BBC.