Tolstoy said, Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In my experience, much the same can be said about bosses. I’ve been blessed with four excellent bosses in a row for the past fifteen years – bosses with mighty fine leadership training skills. While these bosses were not precisely all alike, they did all share one very important trait: They never, ever made me want to deploy the escape slide and whoosh off the job onto the tarmac, six-pack under my arm.
But a few of the bosses that came before that? Hoo, boy. Yeah, there were a few moments in the early years of my career when I’d have totally pulled a Steve Slater.
While I could digress here into a hair-curling travelogue of the bosses I endured in my late teens and early twenties, I won’t go down those side roads. (They’re probably overgrown with weeds and full of potholes by now, anyway). No, I’ll save a few of those for later.
At this point in time, I’d like to get straight to the clear Grand Prize Winner in my own Worst Boss Derby.
The French language has a marvelous phrase: l’esprit d l’escalier, which roughly translates to “the wit of the staircase.” It’s a phrase that’s meant to capture that frustrating moment when you finally come up with the perfect response to somebody else’s dig, insult, or joke…but it’s too late because you’re already halfway across the room and heading up the staircase, on your way out the door.
In the case of WorstBoss, I’ve had fifteen years to think up my own little bon mots ofl’esprit d’lescalier. Things I could have said to try to make that job experience a bit less awful. Ways I might have better handled impossible demands, conflicting directives, capricious decisions, hair-pin reversals, temper tantrums, and just plainbizarre moments of over-sharing.
Because WorstBoss gave me a full tasting menu of The Bad, The Worse, and The Insane, his was the only face I saw in my mind’s eye when I took Leader Effectiveness Training a few years ago. And it occurred to me as I was learning a new set of communication skills that, while I might never have changed him, therewere things I could have done that might have changed the psychic and emotional impact of that year on me.
And so, while I have had no contact with WorstBoss for fifteen years, never expect to see him again, and am at this point at least fifty staircases removed from daily interactions that made me want to tear my own hair out (and a fistful of his, too, just for good measure), I thought I’d practice my “I-messages.” Today. With “him.” In the privacy of my own mind.
This one’s for you, Guy-Who-Kept-A-Human-Skull-On-His-Desk.
- “When I arrive at work in the morning and and find a voice-recorder full of things you’d like me to transcribe sitting atop dozens of pages of handwritten notes and then find myself getting sent across town to get a very special sandwich without even having had the time to put my purse down, I get very anxious that more dictation will happen while I’m out of the building and, in order to get through that ever-growing pile of work, I may have to stay here so long to get it done, I won’t have any quality time with my husband, which I value.”
- “When the other assistant and I discover we are working on the exact same projects and you tell each of us (in confidence) it’s because you don’t trust the other to be competent enough to do them right, I feel upset, because I could have spent that time doing one of the other sixteen brand new things on my To-Do list. I also can’t help but wonder whether eight of them are also on her To-Do list.”
- “When you ask me to go pick up your laundry or buy a gift for your girlfriend at the same time that I’m on a tight deadline, I feel anxious about being able to meet the deadline, and also depressed because I feel like I am not utilizing my talents and qualifications.”
OK, I’m stopping now. I just broke into one of those proverbial cold sweats. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t just for soldiers and crime victims.
Ultimately, there’s probably no fixing communication with somebody who’s truly a Worst Boss. But I do recognize now, from a distance of fifteen years, that had I known then some of the skills I learned in leadership training – specifically, how to communicate assertively without escalating negative emotions – I could have at least felt more in-control of my own work life, less subject to irrational whims, and less resentful of the situation. Period.
As it was, I took the only kind of control I could. I ran to a placement agency to get out of that job, one year to the day after I started. And I lied when I left, cooking up some kind of implausible story about having been “wooed away” by my next employer. I had to. He’d sued everybody else who ever quit.
Remind me never to work for that guy again, would you?