Dealing with jerk bosses

I’ve just finished the biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s opus on the genius behind Apple.

Cover of Walter Isaacson's biography on Steve Jobs

I was struck by the number of times Jobs cries, throws tantrums or humiliates his employees. He takes credit for others’ work and even parks in handicapped parking spaces.

By the 100th page he had cried at least 10 times, sometimes like a petulant child not getting his own way. While he demanded high standards from his employees and led Apple from innovation to innovation, he was a jerk boss. Even Isaacson says Jobs was probably the world’s worst manager.

Since I’ve been facilitating workshops on leadership and respectful workplaces, I am keenly aware of how destructive bosses like Jobs can be. We often excuse that kind of behaviour because, like Jobs, the boss is a genius or so competent that they can’t be replaced. So what do you do if you have to deal with someone in authority that’s an asshole?

Escape if at all possible

When we were in production we had a “no grief” set and wouldn’t hire people who were prima donnas, yellers or abusive, no matter how talented the people are. Look for that kind of working environment. And we know sometimes that’s just not possible. You want to pay off your mortgage or you’re digging out of student loans or just getting started in your career. So…

Set your own boundaries

Very often jerks act and speak in the way they do because they get away with it. You can be the judge of whether you feel safe enough to politely confront the abusive behaviour but it certainly helps to be clear about how you want to be treated. Here’s one example of politely stating your case. “I can improve if you criticize my work. I can become more competent. However, attacking me or yelling isn’t helpful and is unacceptable.”

Limit your exposure

Stay out of the way and keep your head down when you have to deal with the person. Say you only have five minutes to discuss the matter. Avoid sit-down sessions if you can. Stand-up meetings are shorter and can be just as effective.

Keep a diary

The laws around bullying in the workplace are getting stronger. For instance, in many places employers have to post their policies on violence in the workplace and how they will deal with the complaints. If you have an asshole boss, start documenting the incidents and look for support from your co-workers. Make sure you keep your writings in a safe place away from your desk or workspace.

There are no quick fixes or easy cures if you are in a nasty workplace. Let me know the successes you’ve had to combat jerks at your work.

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