“We’re pressed to do more with less, compete globally, and meet ever-rising expectations against shrinking deadlines.” – Stephen Covey
Sometimes we’re also burdened with extremely difficult bosses – people who can make going to work a daily combat zone instead of a pleasant, productive work environment. Yet even the worst bosses can end up teaching valuable lessons that can boost careers.
Monica Jones (not her real name), a journalist in New York City, had an experience early on that she still draws on. “I wrote an important process memo at my manager’s request,” she says. “I worked really hard on it, making sure all critical points were included – and went out of my way to solicit input from senior team members who had more experience than I did.”
Jones spent days refining her memo, on top of her regular duties. “I wanted it to be as clear and instructive as possible.”
But after she turned it in, she was met with a deafening silence. Her boss didn’t respond at all. “I understand that people are busy, and we were a large staff with so much going on – so I got it. But I was confused by the non-reaction.”
When Jones diplomatically mentioned she’d submitted the memo, there was still no reaction. Finally, two weeks later, Jones arrived at work one morning to find a post-it note on her desk: “A major disappointment,” it read in her boss’s handwriting.
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Below that, the boss had left a scathing critique of Jones’s memo. “She said it was too long. It was too detailed. She had crossed out big chunks of the memo and written in the margins, ‘No! Absolutely not.’ And she didn’t like that I’d gone to other staff members for input.”
Jones, still relatively new to her company, was crushed, but she tried to strip emotion from the encounter. “It seemed clear that she’d wanted a one pager with a few bullet points – not a detailed memo as she’d asked for.”
The boss’s perspective is what counts, of course – and Jones acknowledges her memo “had its imperfections.” But what irked her most was the poor communication. “A friendly face-to-face chat would have helped enormously,” says Jones. “She could have pointed a few things out, given me the chance to revise. I gladly would have done a new version. I wanted to succeed.”
The boss took the memo away from Jones, however, and gave it to another staffer to “fix” – and then let it be known that Jones’s draft had “failed.”
The experience was so devastating, Jones says, she vowed to do things differently when she became a manager, which she did a few years later. She learned the following tips:
Be very clear about what you ask for. Clarity is critical for all parties to accomplish the goal at hand.
Be quick with feedback, or as quick as you can given other priorities.
Give feedback verbally – not through stealth notes left on desks overnight. If a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible (because people are in different locations), talk it through by phone, at least generally, then follow-up with details by email.
Give constructive feedback. Sometimes employees need more direction and thought to accomplish a task than initially envisioned.
Give credit where credit is due. Even a draft of something shows effort and thought. Be appreciative.
“You can’t make anyone else change,” advises career counselor and executive coach Michele Woodward, “no matter how smart and capable you are. You can only change how you react to that person.” So even though it can be “crappy to work for a jerk,” she says that in reality, “some bosses are fearful, some have blind spots, and some lack leadership and communication skills” – though we all wish our managers were perfect.
“Bad bosses teach resiliency,” says Michael Gurian, author of Leadership and the Sexes, among other books. “They test our personality assets and liabilities. In that sense, they are a gift.
“So if we can weather them and grow from them– by trying to see what they actually do right and learning to take nothing personally – we can gain a lot.”
Gurian adds that “nearly every ‘bad boss’ actually does see something in us they’re trying to fix – some weakness or another – so their attacks or negligence are not actually worthless.”
In Monica Jones’s case, once the memo fiasco blew over, she focused on her day-to-day productivity. Eventually the boss moved to a different division of the company – but Jones carried the lessons with her. “I work hard today at strong communications with the people on my team,” she says, “because I remember the hell I went through when someone didn’t.”