The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

Do You Have a Bad Boss?

A bad boss will gossip, blame, triangle, and communicate poorly.

How's your boss doing?  Probably not all that well. I'm reminded of novelist Mary Karr's definition of a dysfunctional family as "any family with more than one person in it." Likewise, a dysfunctional organization is any workplace that has more than one person in it.

Put on your anthropologist hat and think of yourself as an observer of a fascinating culture--your anxious workplace. Keep in mind that all systems are anxious a good deal of the time and especially during these hard economic times.

Obviously, anxiety is highest when resources are scarce and the well-being or survival of your organization is threatened. But even when your workplace has abundant resources, you can count on the fact that your work system, like your family system, will be regularly hit with sources of stress and act pretty crazy.

If you're in an anxious (read, dysfunctional) system, you may  see the presence of decidedly  poor leadership all around you. Your boss will probably do what anxious people automatically do. When stress hits, he might angrily confront someone or go for the quick fix. He might participate in gossip, take sides and form cliques or triangles. He might apply personnel policies in an arbitrary or partial manner, or announce ambitious new plans or initiatives-then suddenly abandon them.

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Rather than clearly stating expectations and giving direct feedback about performance, his communications might be vague, contradictory, mystifying-or dictatorial. He would not ask clear questions, nor would he listen well to the different opinions of others.

I'm not just making a laundry list of the regrettable qualities that your lousy boss may have. We tend to think of an individual's behavior as reflecting fixed "personality characteristics." But people are capable of varying levels of competence, depending on their own level of stress and the level of anxiety in the system. If your boss were magically free of anxiety and stress, he might behave with far more clarity and maturity. On the other hand, if your workplace is chronically anxious, your boss may drive you crazy a good bit of the time. And an immature boss in an anxious system is a recipe for disaster.

How does your workplace rate?

If you are in a calm  workplace with a mature boss, you will nod "yes" in response to the eight statements below.
• Your organization has clearly articulated written goals, which can be measured objectively.
• Your organization has dates and timetables to evaluate whether the goals have been achieved.
• You and your boss/manager have a clear understanding of your job description.
• Performance expectations are attainable and clearly stated.
• You are given the necessary information and resources to do the job.
• You have the necessary authority and backing to do the job.
• The chain of command (or "organizational chart") is clear, so you know who is responsible for what, who reports to whom, whom to go to with a question or concern, and where the buck stops.

Good leadership will develop and follow the above criteria. But keep in mind that when enough anxiety and stress descends on a workplace, even mature administrators and managers (just like parents) will start making decisions on the basis of emotions rather than clear thinking.

When stress hits your workplace, anxiety will zoom through the system as everyone tries to get rid of their own by dumping it on someone else. Don't raise your hand and volunteer to be the scapegoat. Get a grip on your own level of reactivity. Let other peoples intensity and reactivity float on by you. Don't blame or gossip because it will backfire.

How you manage your own anxiety, no matter where you are in the work hierarchy, will either calm things down or further rev things up. Just when your boss is being the biggest jerk, try to be your best self. Read The Dance of Anger for more specifics.

 

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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