A few months after graduating from college, I was excited to start a solid job in the business world. My job was exciting, stretching, and offered many new opportunities. There was only one problem: I had a difficult boss.
She was sarcastic, intimidating, insecure and unapproachable. When she’d pass employees in the hallway, she’d occasionally say, “You’re fired!” and let out a cackle. Some of us weren’t always sure she was joking. I tried to avoid her as much as possible, and when we did interact I grew anxious.
One day, after working up a lot of courage, I asked her if she could give me feedback on how I was doing in my new role — what I was doing well and where I needed to improve or change. Her response was terse and direct: “Are you looking for encouragement? Your paycheck should be encouragement enough for you. Just so you know, no news is good news. Don’t worry: If there’s a problem, I will be the first to let you know.” So much for feedback.
Boss Boot Camp
That boss was the most difficult I’ve ever had. She wasn’t evil, but she sure added a lot of stress to my life. Even though my experience with my boss was often frustrating, looking back at it now, I wouldn’t change it if I could. In fact, I look back on that experience with deep gratitude. How can that be? While none of us would intentionally choose to work for a difficult boss, there are significant benefits. Here are a few I discovered:
1. It builds our character and cultivates endurance.
During those days, there were lots of times I felt like blurting out, “This isn’t fair!” Fortunately, I didn’t. Instead, I was able to seek out trusted friends and family members to help me process my workplace drama. These trusted individuals listened with empathy and helped me stay out of the gutters of complaint, gossip and pity. They reminded me to press on by remaining focused on what I could control (my work) and avoid wasting time on what was out of my control (my boss).
In this difficult work environment, I learned to ask myself a question: “Am I doing any learning yet?” Asking that question created a different, more hopeful framework to my situation and helped move me from a victim mindset, which was prone to complaining and frustration, to a mindset of learning and growth.
I found myself working harder, reflecting more, learning from my mistakes and coaching myself through different work scenarios. Asking myself what I could learn from this situation — and then giving myself time to reflect and process, by myself and with others — gave me an education I couldn’t have learned in a business leadership book or graduate school classroom.
2. It helps develop the ability to work with difficult people.
While that boss may have been my most challenging, I have had to work with other difficult personalities throughout my career. It doesn’t matter what job you have. You will find difficult people anywhere you work. (One of the reasons the NBC hit comedy “The Office” was so popular was that it had many people saying, “I work with people exactly like that!”) The only way we learn to work well with difficult people is — wait for it — to work with difficult people. Some co-workers may be quirky, eccentric, loud, annoying, irresponsible, overly critical, overbearing, chronically pessimistic or lacking personal integrity. And let’s face it: Some can even seem downright evil.
As I learned to cope with having a challenging boss, I resolved to not let my boss impact my personal value. Over time, I was able to shrug off disappointing or awkward situations with her more easily. I found my courage growing, in myself and in my role at work. And I learned an important life lesson: The only person I will ever change will be myself. When we steward these situations appropriately, difficult as they may be, we shouldn’t be surprised to see evidence of our own personal growth emerging.
3. It develops and strengthens important skills in the workplace.
Because I didn’t feel safe to go talk to my boss about a question or ask for help, I learned to solve problems on my own. I became a self-starter, recognizing ways I could contribute in the workplace outside of my formal job responsibilities. I evaluated issues, problems or gaps in my workweek, and came up with creative solutions. I focused my energies to work more closely with co-workers on projects by seeking out their ideas and soliciting their feedback.
And since I craved feedback and encouragement in that environment, I attained a sensitivity to notice when my co-workers were contributing. If I desired encouragement, I was fairly certain others did, too. I looked for ways to “catch people doing things right” and proactively encouraged them with an email or words of affirmation in the hallway.
4. It teaches you to be a good boss.
And then it happened: In my thirties, in another organization, I became a boss. Now I was paid to lead and supervise a team of people. Inexperienced and filled with insecurity, I doubted I could do it. I regularly asked myself: Do I have what it takes to be a boss? How am I to know how to lead? But the memories of my first job remained with me. A dozen years earlier, I had made a commitment one afternoon in my cubicle that if I ever had the opportunity to lead other people, I would never make others feel the way my boss made me feel.
Lacking experience leading and supervising others, I asked myself three questions:
1. What would my first boss do in this situation?
2. How could I do the opposite of that?
3. If I did that, would it help those who work for me feel the opposite of what I felt in my first job?
This “reverse psychology” leadership approach gave me the sensitivity and perspective to remember that the people I lead are real people with real emotions — fears, hopes, insecurities and dreams. I could honor them or belittle them. I could thank them or take their work for granted. I could serve them or demand they serve me. I could guide, help and instruct them, or I could make a sarcastic joke at their expense when they messed up. I focused on the golden question: How would I want to be treated? The choice was now mine.
Little did I realize then just how much my first boss actually taught me about leadership. (And little did I realize at the time just how complex — and sometimes overwhelming — it was to be a boss!) I received invaluable leadership training through the back door.
This is not only my experience. As I talk to others, many who are now leaders in the workplace, they sometimes tell me their “worst boss” stories. Many are quick to follow up by telling me how thankful they are for the chance to learn from these experiences. In fact, many have told me that they would not be the co-worker or supervisor that they are today without the experience of having a bad boss.
A few months ago, I was telling my father, who worked for 30 years as a manager for General Electric, about the benefits I’d received from my bad boss experience. He chimed in: “Absolutely. Everyone should have the privilege of working for a bad boss at some point in their career.” He wasn’t being sarcastic; he absolutely meant it. He went on to share his own experience with a difficult boss — the lessons he learned through it and how he was better because of it.
When you’re in it, working for a difficult boss can feel excruciating. But when you open yourself up to learning and growth, don’t be surprised if you look back one day grateful for the experience.
Copyright 2018 J.R. Briggs. All rights reserved.