Do You Hate Your Boss?
Looking back, I realize Elaine had it tough: supervising a crew of cashiers dumber than a barrel of Mexican jumping beans, appeasing an endless line of disgruntled old ladies, and answering to the biggest stiff of all, the store manager. (He sat preciously upstairs, gazing down through a two-way mirror.) But we didn't give Elaine much credit. She was the boss, and we hated her--hated her for grousing whenever anyone rejected a certain shift, for posting stats on how fast each cashier rang groceries, for the cold sore on her upper lip. I think of Elaine only because last month, during what should have been a simple purchase, I noticed her at the front of another Brookline supermarket. (The old Stop & Shop has long since closed.) My body begin to overheat. My head felt heavy. Flee, everything inside screamed. And so I did. Funny how even seven years later, all that mattered to me was keeping a distance from the boss. According to psychologists and business experts, and also according to a study conducted by the Minneapolis-based United Healthcare Corporation, there's actually nothing that strange about my reaction. Bosses are, after all, the enemy, the targets of every worker's frustrations. And in an age when it's no longer cool to despise your parents, detest the Russians, and resent outsiders of any kind, bosses are the only people it's still okay to hate. United Healthcare's study, published recently in the Wall Street Journal, sought to document damage caused by stress-inducing bosses. Business analysts have long suspected that such damage is considerable, and, sure enough, the study's results link bad bosses to no less than $500 billion lost from sick days, doctor's bills, and turnover. What's more, the 1000 randomly selected people surveyed pegged the Northeast as the capital of bad bosses, a place where lousy people with short fuses rise to the top more frequently than anywhere else. If that doesn't turn you off from working, this might: because of the economy, leaving a bad boss behind may be harder than it's been in decades. "The whole nature of a job has changed since the recession," says Brookline psychologist Ron Levant, the author of Masculinity Reconstructed: Changing Rules of Manhood (Dutton, 307 pages, $22.95). "Companies are expecting far more from their employees and giving them far less. Bosses are making exorbitant demands." To be fair, there are some good bosses. Unfortunately they're harder to find than a complete sentence at a Bruins game. It's the bad bosses--the lying, spineless snivelers--who get our attention and stick in our memory banks. These power punks, more than anyone, can make our lives miserable. When things go bad, spouses divorce, families disown, and feisty friends are shown the door. To leave the boss, though, you'd better have a damned good offer lined up somewhere else. They're everywhere Boss bashing didn't crop up yesterday. George Orwell, dead 45 years now, once wrote of the "poor bastard . . . dreaming that he's got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him." A legacy of loathsome leaders has thrived for decades on television, films, and Broadway-- from Mr. Woodman (Welcome Back, Kotter) to Mr. Burns (The Simpsons); Dabney Coleman (Nine to Five) to Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl); Mr. Biggsley (How to Make It In Business Without Really Trying) to Demi Moore (Disclosure). We can't even hide from bad bosses behind our newspapers. A recent Dilbert strip featured a mean manager plotting to move his company to the South Pole or Russia for cheap labor. Speaking of comics, cartoonist Pat Hucklebee's new book Recycle Your Boss (Workman Publishing, 99 pages, $6.95) illustrates how your boss can serve as a tugboat bumper, window squeegee, and nuclear meltdown plug. In Swimming With Sharks (a film opening June 9 at the Nickelodeon), 27-year-old writer-director George Huang details the beating a film-school grad takes from his boss, a studio executive. The boss, Buddy (played by Kevin Spacey) makes Guy (Frank Whalley), line up dates for him, and won't let him use the bathroom when he's answering phones. On Guy's first day, he slips up and fetches Buddy Equal instead of Sweet'n Low. "Do me a fucking favor," Buddy says, in front of everyone. "Shut up, listen, and learn. Look, I know this is your first day and you really don't know how things work around here, so I will tell you. You have no brain. No judgement calls are necessary. What you think means nothing. What you feel means nothing. You are here for me. You are here to protect my interests and serve my needs." It's a fictional dressing-down, sure, but in many ways it's realistic. Bad bosses are the number-one reason--ahead of even money--that people seek new jobs, according to a Washington Times article published in January. Other media reports are filled with passionate pro-worker sympathy; both the New York Times and the Hartford Courant recently gave readers a space in which to vent about bosses, and the bossed-around responded with a vengeance. On April 26, Secretary's Day, the 9-to-5 organization released its annual bad-boss poll. This year's winners included a boss who asked his assistant to give his cat enemas twice a day, a restaurant manager who ordered a waitress to wax hair on his back, and a boss who made an assistant put his dog to sleep. The United Healthcare survey dealt with drier, but more common complaints. Almost 22 percent of men surveyed said their bosses yell at them, and 10 percent said their bosses belittle them in front of others. (The percentages were nine and seven percent for women.) Ten percent said their bosses snoop through their desks and lockers. The survey concludes that workers with disrespectful bosses are five times more likely to lose sleep, get headaches, and suffer from upset stomachs than those with good managers. "Bad bosses wreak an inordinate amount of havoc in the workplace," adds United Healthcare's Edward Bergmark, who commissioned the survey. As for the concentration of bad bosses in the northeast, one management expert doesn't consider it surprising. "We do things so quickly here, the pace is much faster and we don't take the time to do a lot of listening," says Joseph Weintraub, a management consultant and professor at Babson College. "We finish sentences for people. One person told me, 'if my boss wants my opinion, he tells it to me.' " Boston workers have another strike against them. Weintraub says evil bosses thrive in a tight job market. In a city like Boston, managers have an unfair advantage. If a worker doesn't fit in, there's always a stack of resumes to dig into. "Bad bosses," says Weintraub, "give a message to the employees: 'you're fortunate to be working here, and if you don't like it, leave.' " Hell on the self-esteem Just one encounter with a bad boss can twist youthful ambitions into a confused knot of self-doubt and bitterness. David, a 26-year-old man (who, like several others interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous), had worked less than a year at a local publishing company when, on what should have been a normal Thursday, his boss broke down in tears and stormed out of the office without explanation. Later, she complained that he didn't give her enough respect, couldn't take criticism, and always argued. It didn't matter that nobody else in the company agreed, or that only weeks earlier he'd received a glowing review. After the boss's outburst, she had a colleague give David a piece of paper listing what she considered his flaws. A higher-up then pulled him aside and warned that if he didn't quit soon, he'd be fired. No hard feelings, David was told, with a you-know-how-it-is shrug. I just have to back her up. "I had no idea it was that bad," says David now. "I'd felt a little bit of tension before." A monster manager can eat away at our insides like a bad piece of sushi. As David's young career dissolved, he found himself apologizing to friends, family, even to a supermarket cashier after mistakenly labelling his bag of granola with the wrong price code. He had lost his confidence, and who can blame him? When someone more experienced and powerful says they're right and you're wrong, you wonder how you could have been so stupid and why you never used to make so many mistakes. "I always just accepted the fact that I didn't know what I was doing and I was screwing up," says Pete, 30, a former schoolteacher whose battles with an evil boss lasted for months until she moved away. "She was my supervisor. Why would she just lie? She had me convinced I was fucking up things left and right." In a case like this, says Brookline-based psychologist Alan Kaplan, who specializes in anxiety and stress, "what you see is a withering away of self-esteem." Advertising mogul James X. Mullen, in his just-released The Simple Art of Greatness (Viking, 216 pages, $19.95), advises bosses to be sensitive to an employee's needs. If the worker is happy, she wants to do a good job, and both sides win. Overbearing, confidence-choking bosses, writes Mullen, don't just infect the self-esteem of the underlings. "In cruel and fascinating emulation, managers reporting to the great boss will tend to mimic his indulgent actions, athletically exercising their own egos on the employees one level below. And so control and fear travel down through the system, and even out the doors to the company's associates and vendors." Variations on badness Psychologist Kaplan says that the worst type of bad boss is the type Pete worked for: one who gives only negative feedback. But there are others. In his book on job searches, Jobsmarts for Twentysomethings (Vintage, 407 pages, $13), 28-year-old Texan Bradley Richardson lists four types of bosses: the bully, the egocentric, the old-school (and resistant to change), and the new boss (flexible and understanding). According to Robert Bramson, author of Coping With Difficult Bosses (Simon & Schuster, 158 pages, $10), bad bosses can be sorted into types that include wafflers and stallers (bosses too worried about hurting employees' feelings to be effective), ogres, fire eaters (a boss who can blow up at any moment), artful dodgers, power clutchers, or bulldozing know-it-alls. If only it were as simple as Richardson and Bramson make it seem. The thought of labelling bosses like urine samples is strangely appealing. Unfortunately, however, bad bosses, like bad people, can cause trouble for countless reasons. Diletta Masiello, 26, and now a medical secretary at Brigham and Women's Hospital, once had to deal with a common type: the lazy boss. She was waiting tables at the Ground Round at the time. Her new boss was a pudgy redhead named Mark. She and her fellow workers had liked the previous boss, a man not too proud to roll up his sleeves and clear tables when help was needed. Mark, the new guy, had a different approach. "On a Friday night, when we had a rush, he'd be in the office with the door closed, eating his supper," says Masiello. At least she didn't work for one of the most frustrating sorts of manager: the well-intentioned boob. Trying to do the right thing, he ends up hated as much as the next chump. Linda was one of 27 workers whose boss demanded that his employees embark on a mandatory five-day camping trip in Maine to get to know each other. If sleeping in tents on tree roots with snoring strangers wasn't bad enough, there was the six-hour ride north. Her boss made all the employees ride together on a bus. "More bonding," she says. "He decided he would show Deliverance on the bus VCR, and promptly had a screaming fight over it with one of us in a Burger King parking lot," says Linda. Coping with the bad Most bosses fail for a simple reason--they have no clue what they're doing. Weintraub, the Babson College professor, estimates bad bosses outnumber the good three-to-one because of the way companies hire and train--or more likely, don't train. Promotions go to the best workers, hard-driving professionals who thrive on tension and feed off pressure. As bosses, they need an entirely different set of skills (understanding how employees feel, for instance). "You need someone who's a psychologist," says Jack Erdlen, who runs the management-consulting firm Erdlen & Bograd, in Wellesley. Not everyone can make the transition. "You dig a big pit, throw people in and see who crawls out," Weintraub says. And, as Kaplan explains, many bosses are especially inflexible and nervous because their advanced position in the company coincides with a feeling of increased visibility and vulnerability. "When you reach 50 years old and your job is not going well, you're in great danger of not getting another one. A good boss might go to his boss and say 'Joe gave me a good idea.' A person who's threatened is never going to." Understanding this--putting yourself in the boss's loafers--can help you cope. Erdlen recommends that the first step toward dealing with an unpleasant boss is to ask a difficult question: could you be the problem? Consider the following, Erdlen advises: "Are the complaints realistic? Is there a give-and-take? Over a period of time, is there some kind of a track record that shows that, hey, the boss is being unrealistic, or is it that you're not being flexible?" If you're still uncertain, measure your situation against the standards laid out in Coping with a Difficult Boss. Good bosses, reports Bramson, "treat you with courtesy, manage as they say they intend to manage, use power to achieve organizational goals rather than feather their own nests, and represent the needs and wishes of those who report to them to higher levels." Why bother to try to better your relations with the boss? Why not just stay angry and snicker with the other workers? For your own good, says Bramson. The sad reality of bosses who bully is that most of the time the bullying is effective. Workers who get yelled at tend to cower and obey. Only when bullying ceases to work does the boss change. Bramson admits his coping methods are exhausting. They call for the worker to think every statement through, to make sure to say things like "I think your last point is on the money" before making a suggestion, and to be certain never to say "but" or "that's not true" (these words inflame most aggressive managers). When all else fails, try to put the situation in perspective, advises Lawrence Litman, who, as director of the Cognitive Therapy Institute of New England, has for two decades treated people depressed, anxious, and angry as a result of emotionally battering bosses. "You can either think differently about it or act differently," he says. "This boss, at the very worst, fires you. If you're 30 years old, what's the big deal?" It's advice Pete, the former schoolteacher, could have used a few months ago during his battle with a ruthless manager. She lied, kept her frustrations inside, and confused him with unfair accusations from day one. She told superiors Pete had forgotten to pay bills on a project completed before he was hired. She told Pete he'd been promoted, only to announce, the next day in a large meeting, that someone else had been named to the post. Maybe the darkest moment came 10 minutes before he went home one Friday. "This isn't working out," she told Pete. "I need to see you first thing Monday." After letting him sweat it out all weekend, even tell his family he'd probably be fired, she pretended nothing happened. Pete got lucky--his boss moved away--because if there's one final lesson for anyone stuck in the doghouse, it's that some bad bosses can't learn new tricks. "I've been in the consulting business for 20 years," says Tom Salemme, a management consultant, "and I'm not too hopeful of changing people. If you've got a bad boss you've got three choices: you can either change, you can try and make your boss change--which is unlikely--or you can go someplace else." Viva la hate There is something to be said for hating the boss. "Your anger can mobilize you," says Litman. "All emotion is useful, and anger is, too." "If we're not angry," says psychologist Kaplan, "we're saying to ourselves, 'This is okay.' This is when people explode." Whenever you get mad, it might help to think of how you'll remember your boss conflicts five or 10 years down the road. Like many horrible memories, they'll probably seem funny in the rear view mirror. Even the pain of getting fired, one of life's most traumatic experiences, dulls over time. Richard Mason, a Boston University senior, doesn't get upset when he talks about his dismissal from a Boston restaurant where he was a waiter. It happened after a customer requested he taste his tuna steak. The manager said sampling a patron's food wasn't appropriate. Mason disagreed. "Oh, it definitely was overcooked," says Mason. "And thing is, I promised the guy it wouldn't be." And if, as the saying goes, we learn from our bad experiences, living through a nightmare boss must be better than night school. Just ask David, the Brighton man squeezed out by the crying boss. After only three years in the working world, he seems already to have learned his first lesson. "I'm starting my own business," he says. SIDEBAR It Isn't Easy Being the Boss Author: Geoff Edgers Required ID: Boston Phoenix Background: Being a good boss often has nothing to do with being a nice person. It actually can have everything to do with not being nice. Bullying bosses, as Robert Bramson notes in Coping with a Difficult Boss, usually end up with productive--though frustrated--departments. Even when you're a decent boss, human nature and its insecurities stand in your way. Length: 400 words Cost: $25 20; $15; $10 ____________________________________________________________ Their paychecks are larger; their offices bigger. And some of them haven't answered a phone in 15 years. So you think bosses have it made? Think again. The top job has obvious drawbacks that go beyond having to fire people and being where the buck stops. Behaving like a boss is by nature a contradiction. The specific skills that thrust you up the ladder hardly matter anymore--now you must manage people. Popular office activities, like gossip and goofing around, are off-limits. (High-ranking pranksters quickly grow more popular and less respected.) Everyone wants to be loved, but if you're in charge, forget it. "It's always easier to blame the boss," says management consultant Jack Erdlen. "The boss is the natural enemy. Everyone can empathize with somebody who doesn't have a good boss." Being a good boss often has nothing to do with being a nice person. It actually can have everything to do with not being nice. Bullying bosses, as Robert Bramson notes in Coping with a Difficult Boss, usually end up with productive--though frustrated--departments. Even when you're a decent boss, human nature and its insecurities stand in your way. By design, workers earn only a fraction of what the boss makes--depending on the business. Bosses also have the power to tell you what to wear and, sometimes, say. They make an easy target for insecure employees. Craig, now an advertising copywriter for Ingalls Quinn & Johnson, remembers hating his boss at the small agency where he once worked. His boss didn't yell, scream, or slap him around. But he kept sending him back to rewrite the copy, telling Craig the headlines he was writing weren't want the agency was looking for. "It was frustrating because I thought they were good," Craig says. "As a result of that, I felt very weakened. I felt like I was not doing my job." After a few more years in the workforce, Craig realizes his first boss was actually effective. "I was doing my job. I just didn't understand the process. At the time, I thought he was out to get me. Now I look back on it and think he was doing the exact right thing." Bosses grow frustrated easily. This is because to get where they are they had to be the best. Now, they have to depend on others to be the best. And, occasionally--just occasionally--we workers aren't.