Dear Crucial Skills,
I have a domineering boss who micromanages everything I do. He has no filter when speaking to me and often is just outright rude. Whenever I send out a piece of work, he finds fault with it and tries to undermine my confidence. Having read online about his characteristics, I truly believe he suffers from narcissism. The sad fact is that he gets results and senior management love him, so he is untouchable. How can I deal with this aside from leaving the company?
I’ve learned two things about myself that I want to offer to you. They may or may not apply. But try them on for size. If they fit, they’re the fastest path to peace and resolution of your complaints.
First, I’ve learned that any time I don’t feel compassion for another human being, the problem is in me. The problem always begins with me carrying a story about them that turns a human into a villain. The way I do that is by equating their weaknesses with permanent labels and by assiduously avoiding any virtues they might have in my characterization of them.
Take a moment to read back over your question. Take an inventory of the adjectives you use to describe your boss. Then ask yourself, are they precise or exaggerated? Are they a full picture or a highly edited list? Are there reasonable third parties who would tell a different story? If so, part of the problem is in you.
Now let me hasten to add that some people’s weaknesses can be intolerable. You’ll see in my second life lesson that I do not equate compassion with permission. Don’t take anything I’ve said so far as an argument that your misery is fiction or that his weaknesses aren’t profound. But since I’m talking to you and not to him, I urge you to entertain the possibility that your choice of adjectives (domineering, micromanages everything, no filter, outright rude, finds fault, undermines, narcissism) is deeply shaping your experience of and response to his flaws.
So I ask you to consider:
- How does your story about him affect your attitude and behavior toward him?
- How does your story about him affect the way you try to influence his weaknesses?
- Would a more moderated and complete story change your attitude, emotions and behavior?
My second life lesson is that my anger, fear, resentment or blame are often evidences that I am not setting and maintaining boundaries. So I ask you, could it be that part of your motivation to use extreme adjectives in describing him has to do with your own failure to set and hold boundaries for how you allow him to treat you?
Here’s an example of both of these principles in action. I once worked with a leader on a once-in-a-career project. I felt honored, thrilled, and lucky to be involved. One day I did something he didn’t like. Whereas he had been the picture of professionalism in all our previous interactions, on this Friday afternoon he screamed over the phone at me for sixty seconds straight, hurling profanities and threats at me, then hung up abruptly. I felt stunned and terrified. Then I felt angry and weak. An hour or so later my emotions devolved to resentment and disgust.
I sat limp for an hour generating one adjective after another to describe him and how he had treated me.
I share this example to illustrate that the principles I’m sharing do not dismiss the responsibility of the other person. What he did was intolerable. What he did was rude, vindictive, and wrong.
And yet how I next responded to his weaknesses had just as much to do with my felicity or misery as his initial transgressions. I first began a narrow study of the injustice of what happened with the goal of making him the villain and myself the virtuous victim. And the more I worked at this project, the less likely I was to set and hold a boundary with him. The more I told myself that my client was an abusive monster, the less likely I was to confront his unacceptable behavior.
Sometime that weekend I turned a mental corner. I began to open the possibility not only that I was part of the problem that led to his bad behavior, but that I had a responsibility to myself and to him to address what he had done. The larger the picture I allowed myself to see of him, the more human he began to appear to me.
On Monday morning I made my nervous phone call. I said, “I understand from what you said Friday that what I did disappointed and embarrassed you. I failed. If you no longer want to work with me, I understand and I’ll resign.” Pause. Then I continued, “And I’m willing to listen to your feedback if you want to give me another shot. But I will not work with you any further if you talk to me that way again. I want your word that you will address me professionally if you have concerns with me.”
Should you look for another job? Perhaps. But if you haven’t first confronted the possibility that (1) your story is part of the problem and (2) your failure to set and hold boundaries motivates some of your resentment, those weaknesses may influence your experience with future bosses as well.
I wish you the best in the decision ahead.