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Dealing With An Abrasive Boss

Her name was Kathy. 

The big boss must have wondered why she even had a five-person advertising department — according to Kathy, any work that was praised was her own. (Any work criticized? That was another matter.) She demanded, pushed, hectored and was quick to stab anyone in the back who got in her way, including me, her hapless assistant.

Her most shining moment was during a magazine deadline. (Our company was a wholesaler who supplied many different retail stores; it published a flashy color newsletter with product reviews, articles, that sort of thing.) At day’s end, we still weren’t finished. Kathy chewed us all out and stomped home, no doubt to brood on her staff of incompetents.

The only problem: we didn’t follow her. Everyone else stayed and worked — all night, in some cases. (I left at midnight.) By next morning, the issue was ready. The big boss, full of praise. And Kathy couldn’t take credit for it, because she’d gone home.

Boy, was she mad.


If your job is hard enough to begin with, dealing with an bad boss can tip your life into chaos – fast. Quitting means losing income, with no help from unemployment. (And if you’re truly in midlife, getting the next job might not be that easy.) Staying could eventually qualify you for crazyland — unless you take concrete steps to help yourself.

They don’t care. They don’t have to. Ernestine from the Phone Company was right.

Your Boss from Hell (and yes, there’s actually an annual contest to award this dubious title) isn’t concerned with your feelings. They want the work done — and they want it done their way. Which means…

Don’t take it personally. This is the hardest part. No matter what happens, your job should not define who you are in every other aspect of life. Some jobs are important to growth — others may just pay the bills. I consider a year or so spent at Wal-Mart, making cotton candy and working in their grill, in this category; it kept our household going, until other income picked up the slack. There were other ways to bolster my self-worth, including hobbies (one which eventually became my main income) and your family. You cannot let every job define who you are.

They’re concerned with their own promotion – not yours. Make them look good by doing sterling work, and you’ve erased your name from the layoff list. (Letting you go would mean they’d actually have to do the work they’re taking credit for.) On the plus side, if the big boss really does think (doubtful) that your supervisor is what they say, he/she will be promoted right out of your department. And that makes them someone else’s concern.

What do they really want from you?  All that bluster may hide a lot of insecurity. Perhaps your boss isn’t sure of their own abilities. (Or they’re making most lunch hours refreshingly liquid, as a later boss often did.) If you know what’s needed,  and do it –provided it’s legal and not immoral — then you’ve generally removed yourself from their target.

Tune them out. Do your talking at home, where gossip won’t get you in trouble. (Do it at work, and your boss will find out. Promise.) Think about something else — like the upcoming presidential election! Use music to take yourself away from the situation. A good movie or book are like a mini-vacation into another world; the change will do you good.

Find something better. You’ve got more experience now; why not put it to good use? Go back to school for what you really want to be doing. Switch departments. Cross-transfer. Or look elsewhere.

In my case, it was a move to Colorado, so Husband could go to graduate school. Some months later, I heard that Kathy fired nearly everyone on staff. Soon after, she left the company, and took a cushy job doing promotional work for a nearby hospital. (I doubt she lasted that long.) It didn’t matter — by then, I’d gotten the editor’s job I really wanted.

It all worked out in the end. It can for you, too.

dealing with an abrasive boss

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • It is very hard not to get personal. My boss hated me and instead of brown-nosing I just stayed away from the office gossip, waited for my next bonus and left the company to greener pastures. Some of my coworkers are still miserable at the same company years after but aren’t taking any steps (not even sending a CV) so after all you are free to decide what to do with your life, I would just move on and forget about it.

  • Pauline, you made a priceless comment at the very end — “I would just move on and forget about it.”

    You’re absolutely right. And you’re not as miserable as those coworkers anymore, are you…

    I still wonder what happened to my fellow workers…and where they are today.

    Thanks so much for writing.

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