How do you handle a boss from HELL?

First, the results from last week’s online poll:

– Discuss your concerns with your boss – 26%

– Talk to HR / your boss’s boss – 17%

– Discuss coping strategies with your peers – 22%

– Put up with it and do nothing – 4%

– Leave – 30%

Further to this final response, one of my Challenge Consulting colleagues added “but not before hiding some prawns in his/her office”.

I must, however, stress that we are not condoning this behaviour!

As always, the Challenge Consulting team had their say on this week’s topic and came back with a range of responses, some amusing, some serious, but all intriguing and insightful.

First, from one who knows how not to be a boss from hell (yes, I am angling for a payrise), our Managing Director, Elizabeth Varley, provided this handy guide:

The Seven Deadly Sinners – how do you spot the boss from hell?

The Devil Wears Prada: Outrageous demands and expectations no matter how unreasonable are this boss’s trade mark. This Devil will expect that you drop everything NOW otherwise you will see their horns appear and their eyes turn red and your life will turn to crap in a split second. The worst thing about TDWP is that even if you pull a miracle out of your hat they are likely to ignore it as yesterday’s news and you are nothing but something smelly on the bottom of their shoe.

The Prima Donna: Unexplained emotional outbursts are the signature of the PD. They can flounce around the office, slam doors, shout, cry and even worse lie on the floor and have a tantrum like a five year old. Don’t get in the way as you might end up with a few bruises. Just quietly shut the door and disappear until the coast is clear.

The Office Bully: Ferrets out victims no matter who they are and will never let up until they are a quivering mess in the toilet.  Like any school yard bully, you can never get this person off your case until you stand up for yourself and fight for your rights. Look them in the eye and say NO!

The Phantom: Like a good magic trick – now you see them and now you don’t. This boss is notable by their absences, unexplained or otherwise. You are often left to carry the can and make excuses for their absence no matter how embarrassing.

The Peacock: Look at “moi” – This boss takes the credit for everyone else’s hard work, struts around the office looking for compliments, talking loudly and slapping people’s back. Most people can get conned by this affable individual but at essence, they contribute very little and make the most noise.

The Ostrich: When the going gets tough they have their heads firmly planted in the sand. These bosses avoid dealing with any type of conflict even if it means losing a major deal, or handling a difficult customer/colleague who is out of line. Don’t look for support from the ostrich as all you will see, is their backside sticking out of the sand.

The Village Idiot: “Incompetence” is this person’s middle name. No matter what this person does, it will turn to custard in the end and you are left to pick up the pieces or wear the egg on your face. You scratch you head and wonder “how do they get to keep their job”? Well, in every organisation there are plenty of examples of the Peter Principle which states that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”.

So, at this point, we know who we’re dealing with. But what do we do about it? That is the question. Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows, or oppose and end them?

One Challenge teamster offered the following advice:

“You have to first endeavour to determine the issue. For example, is the hellish boss actually reacting badly to being out of his/her depth? Is he/she, in fact, just a mean person? Ultimately you need to lay you cards on the table and speak to him/her. Ask questions: ‘Am I meeting your expectations; if not why not?’  ‘Are you aware that your behaviour is unacceptable?’ and the state the reasons. ‘Are you aware you act in a very hurtful/unprofessional way’ etc.

Plus, there’s always the ‘strength in numbers’ approach – whilst you don’t want to ambush the boss, it’s helpful to have back up so they realise it is about him/her and not you or other individual staff members. Provide actual examples of the poor behaviours and ask ‘how would you like to be treated in this fashion?’.”

Another Challenge team member spoke, unfortunately, from personal experience: “I worked with a boss from hell just after I left school. He was a very large man with an even larger voice. He often screamed at employees and used excessive and even abusive language. Nothing was ever done correctly in his eyes and his outbursts of anger were completely unfounded. The way most employees handled him (including me I suppose) was to wait for his fit of anger to blow over, saying nothing during the shouting session, and proceed as per normal when all is over. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think he “upped” any standards of work via his management style. Even worse, though, was the complaining behind his back. This wasted more company time than he could ever have imagined. Additionally, turnover was rather high in the company (which was fairly small) and mostly due to this specific individual.

How should we have dealt with him? Probably more professionally by, say, escalating the issue to his senior, however, it was a very industrial environment with top management situated off site, in fact, in another state, which added more difficulty to the possibility of taking action.”

Of course there is bad management and then there is psychopathic behaviour. Thank you to my colleague Narelle Hess, our Organisational Psychologist, for providing the following resources!

In his fascinating article “In the Jaws of Work Psychos”*, David Wilson writes: “Psychopaths act out their anti-social impulses at all levels of the workforce and typically seek authority positions to give them power over other employees. Thus the attraction of becoming executives and gaining control of staff. With executive power, the psychopath can hide behind a mask of legitimacy to hollow-out selected fellow employees.”

In his article, he cites the work of University of Sydney psychotherapist John Clarke**, who “has made a life-long study of psychopaths in the workforce and is the author of two books on the subject – Working with Monsters and The Pocket Psycho. He says workplace psychopaths commonly intimidate fellow workers, sometimes behave impulsively, always lack remorse and often are glib and superficially charming.

‘About half the people in any workplace won’t be affected. If anything, they will think they are good guys because psychopaths go out of their way to cultivate people who they can use,” Dr Clarke says. ‘It’s from the other half of the workforce the psychopath selects victims to wage war on. The weapons of war include bullying, putting down, humiliating in front of others, stealing credit for work done by others and spreading false rumours about other people. They will tear people apart to get where they want to be,’ he says.

‘These people are usually in positions where they can actually head off or successfully counter any attempts to get rid of them. They hang on like grim death and leave their positions when they want to.”  Dr Clarke says it is immensely difficult weeding out executive psychopaths. He says management and staff have to be educated about the psychopath’s behaviour and develop a united stand so people are less likely to become victims. Psychopaths find it difficult to operate against this sort of united stand, he says. ‘Then the employer has to form a corporate strategy to modify this behaviour or get rid of them.’”

* “In the Jaws of Work Psychos” by David Wison, The Age February 29, 2009 [link]

** Dr John Clarke, official website: