Once upon a time (or two or three), I worked for an insecure boss. I’m sure most of you have unfortunate tales of your own. It seems there are more than a few insecure supervisors and managers (I’ll refer to them as bosses) who’ve created a living hell for many in the workplace. How do we address this problem—or rationalize moving on?
When insecurity becomes a defining characteristic of a boss’s personality, it can have devastating effects on a workforce. Insecure bosses may appear shy or socially restrained, or they may show signs of paranoia. Worse still are the compensatory behaviors of arrogance, aggression, and bullying.
Arrogant bosses exaggerate their own importance and promote themselves at others’ expense. They blame others for problems and make colleagues feel inferior. They discount feedback and abrogate responsibility for their own mistakes. Typically, bosses with hubris have lost touch with reality, let alone with their subordinates. Their noxious behavior is a smokescreen for lack of substance and confidence. Unfortunately, such a boss may cultivate loyalty in subordinates who’ve figured out that supporting their boss’s belief in self-importance is a strategy for success.
No one need tolerate behaviors that threaten their self-esteem or pride in their work. If you respectfully point out overtures that feel threatening or invasive, others may perceive you as “fighting back”; yet your decision to speak up is justified, enabling you to stand your ground and establish your own assertiveness and expectations for respect and teamwork. How often have you heard someone say, “If you just confront her, she’ll back down and respect you”? So let your boss know you don’t appreciate negative comments and attitudes toward you or your work.
The maxim “All bullies are cowards” rings true with insecure bosses, too. While peer-to-peer bullying is more common, no one should tolerate bullying from a boss. Bullying types include the constant critic, the friendly backstabber, the control freak, and the screamer. The bullying boss is out to seek ultimate control and to win.
The psychological contract
For most of us, the boss/subordinate relationship is a fact of work life. Healthy work environments and successful organizations have codes of conduct that dictate expectations for civility and professional behavior. These apply to boss/subordinate relationships. When we take a job, we assume there’s an inherent psychological contract that sets forth conditions and expectations such that we agree to do a good job and, in return, our employer provides a good work environment, salary, and benefits. This “contract” is personified in the supervisor/subordinate relationship.
I once told a boss he’d created a hostile work environment with actions and words that eroded our working relationship. He’d breached our psychological contract, fueling feelings of distrust and disrespect. Psychological contract breach decreases job satisfaction, organizational commitment, trust in the organization, and job performance. No wonder a boss’s people skills are more valuable than technical or conceptual ones. In their classic work Management of Organizational Behavior, Hersey and Blanchard underscored the importance of human skills and the ability to work through and with people. We should remember that executives typically get hired for experience but fired for personality.
Remember, too, that people leave bosses, not organizations. So how do we deal effectively with someone whose behavior makes it difficult to do our jobs? Once you’ve diagnosed the problem trait, ask yourself, “Can I keep myself from being a victim of aggression or bullying by confronting the behaviors and giving feedback to stop the cycle? Can I report the actions to get help, and trust I can stay? Can I continue to tolerate egotistical and arrogant behaviors?”
If the answer to any of these questions is no, you face the difficult decision of whether to stay or leave. At times, leaving a job you love or an organization you care about deeply is the only decision that makes sense. When you can’t respect the person you work for, when that person has the control to suppress your success, or when you’re feeling a loss each day you go to work, it’s time to move on. As hard as that decision might be—when it may seem unfair that an insecure boss has “won”—you must look out for your own welfare. Even if you’re the good guy who’s leaving, trust that it will feel okay over time.
The transition to a new beginning starts with an ending. You deserve to share your talent in an environment where you feel valued and respected.