Courtesy of Harvard Business Review
by Annie McKee
Have you ever felt like your boss is out to get you? Maybe you’re paranoid. But then again, maybe not. There are a lot of bad bosses out there, leaders who aren’t stupid but lack emotional intelligence. Their self-awareness is strikingly low, they’re clueless when it comes to reading people, they can’t control their emotions, and their values seem to be on a permanent leave of absence.
These dissonant leaders are dangerous. They derail careers and blow up teams. They destroy people — sometimes overtly, sometimes slowly and insidiously. Over time we can find ourselves in perpetual, all-consuming combat with these bosses. We think about it all the time. We relive every last painful word hurled our way. We nurse our wounds. We plot revenge. We talk about our boss and the injustice of it all with anyone who will listen, including coworkers and loved ones.
It’s tiresome, really, but we can’t help ourselves. It feels like a fight to the death. That’s because fighting with a powerful person — like a boss — sparks a deep, primal response: fear. After all, these people hold our lives in their hands — the keys to our futures, not to mention our daily bread.
Clearly, battling to the death with one’s boss does not lead to health, happiness, or success. But what can you do?
First, protect yourself. Conflict with one’s boss usually backfires. That’s because our many cultures place huge value in the official hierarchy: the higher you are, the more “right” you are assumed to be — especially by people even higher up. It is a self-perpetuating system that respects and rewards people by virtue of their level in the organization, not their behavior. This means that you can lose a battle with your boss — in his eyes and others’— even before you start. So, if you must fight, be sure you have a strategy to protect yourself from the fallout. For example, you want to be sure you’ve prepared key people to support you if things go wrong. You also probably want an “exit strategy” to get out of the conflict. You can then decide to act on this long before real damage has been done.
Second, focus on yourself. Make sure that you’re not picking a fight with your boss just to prove something, or cover up your own insecurity. You’ve got to be squeaky clean: fight only for goals that help everyone, not just you. Don’t compromise your ethics. And don’t fight dirty —exaggerating or distorting facts, for example, is a tactic we tend to use when we engage in unequal fights. Sabotaging and backstabbing are pretty common too. Stooping that low isn’t good for the soul.
Third, know that your boss’s issues — not yours — are driving this dysfunctional conflict. These bosses are unstable, insecure, power-hungry demagogues. They are often narcissists. They need help — and, frankly, compassion. Unless you truly understand that these individuals are broken, you can end up joining the fray, blaming yourself, or playing the victim. Rather, you want to focus on building healthy relationships where you can (perhaps with your colleagues or your boss’s boss), doing your job well, and finding ways to be creative. Creativity is a life force that combats the misery of a long-standing fight.
Fourth, evaluate your situation realistically. Fighting at work is nasty. Fighting with one’s boss is downright painful. It can kill your spirit and ruin your health. If you are perpetually fighting with your boss, you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s worth it to stay in your job. Sure, we all have a million reasons for staying in a job (this stance is usually fear-based too). If the relationship with your boss can’t be fixed, why not think of all the good reasons to find another job — with a better boss, in a better culture where such fights aren’t tolerated?
Finally, ask yourself: “Am I part of the problem?” Are you perpetuating a fight culture, using power as the means to quietly intimidate or get what you need at the expense of others? Many of our organizational cultures drive us to behave this way. Dysfunctional power dynamics, coupled with an overemphasis on competition, push us to fight rather than collaborate. And while you may not be able to change the entire organizational culture, you can change it on your team. Here’s how:
- Start with self-awareness. Self-awareness is the foundation for emotional intelligence, which you need to manage conflict with your boss and anyone else, too. Self awareness means that you understand your issues, so they don’t blindside you—or others.
- Manage your emotions. Conflict triggers powerful, mostly negative emotions. You have a choice about whether you let these emotions take over or whether you channel them toward health and wholeness.
- Read people carefully. Learn to really see people for who they are, not where they sit in the hierarchy. Figure out what makes people tick and what they need, and then do something to help.
- Come from a place of compassion. Love, even. Positive emotions, such as compassion and love, are just as contagious as their toxic cousins: anger and fear. And when we choose to share positive regard, enthusiasm, care, and concern, not to mention compassion and love, people will follow you anywhere.
More blog posts by Annie McKee
Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.