One fine day, I burst open at the seams: my brain was malfunctioning and I was unable to think clearly.
I was angry at my boss for being an unprofessional manager and the office culture within our small team had been declining for over a year. That coupled with an industry that was going through some of the most significant changes in its history—the shift to digital—meant that cultural-stitching had to be strong and business models needed to cut new, innovative patterns in order to be successful. Sometimes small team environments thrive and at other times they fail.
I had been cutting, pedalling, stitching, back-stitching, and working 70+ hour weeks for years but due to the constant mind-changing antics of our company directors, was getting nowhere. When that final thread was pulled, I was not even expecting it. Although it was one particular incident that triggered it, many others had led to that moment. Everyone has that one garment, where the hem is coming slightly loose but they just ignore it because it can’t be seen—until of course, it can. The hem just drops in all its glory… “Ta daaaa...I’m here”, it says. “You can’t hide me anymore!” Sure we can run home, hem it back up, stitch it, patch it, do whatever it takes, but in my case, I had re-stitched my garment one too many times and the continuous needling had created big holes. It was worn out and I required new fabric.
After this undescribed ‘incident’ happened, I walked into my boss's office and said, “Can we have a meeting please?” He obliged and we went for a coffee later that day, where I simply and calmly said, “I need to let you know that I would like to follow some of my personal passions and I will be resigning from my position”. He did not take it badly, or so I thought. The next day, he ripped that holey metaphorical garment, I’ve used so unsparingly in this article, to shreds, till there was nothing left, not even the threads. Now that the reality of the situation had sunk in, he could no longer swallow it. However, the office culture had been an issue for a while and it should not have come as a surprise to him, especially given each member of our ‘original’ closely-knit team had dropped one by one like flies—I just happened to be the last one.
He threatened me and tried to preach the conditions under which I could leave (completely unreasonable ones) and told me if I did not comply, he wouldn’t give me a reference. He yelled at me and used every profanity under the sun. To cut a long story short, he got pretty angry and abusive and basically helped cement the fact that I had made the right decision.
Did that scenario sound shocking or vaguely familiar? Interestingly, these types of unhealthy work environments aren’t as unusual as we might believe. In 2015, a study, Working Conditions in the United States, completed by research organisation Rand Corporation, found that nearly one in five American workers are exposed to a hostile or threatening social environment at work. It’s an important issue to be aware of and look out for, as it can have a huge negative impact on our quality of life.
I am now over a year into my new life (working for myself) and am happier than I have ever been. That is not to say my life is now problem free: as all freelancers might know, working for yourself comes with a new set of challenges, however, my mind is much healthier, enabling it to deal with challenges in a more efficient way. Below are a few of the lessons I have learnt through my experiences—I hope that they can play a part in helping others on their journey.
Being happy in our jobs is made up of many factors and they all hold value
Considering we spend 40+ hours working (that’s over 2,000 hours a year) it’s crucial that we ask ourselves if this time is being spent on a job and with people that enhance our life in some way. Different people will place importance on different elements of their job. For me, creativity was a huge factor, which is why I stayed in my job for over 5 years. I was allowed to be creative at the beginning, and, for a while, I had a team that I really enjoyed working with. However, when my team fell apart due to the terrible management style of the company directors and what creativity I had left was crushed, I became extremely depressed. The point I am trying to make here is this: loving what we do is not enough. Happiness in our job is made up of many parts: it is as much about our relationship with team members and managers, as it is about our day-to-day activities, work/life balance and the alignment of our values with that of the organisation. When these parts are in harmony with one another, we begin manifesting greatness.
Bottling up our emotions isn’t always a good idea
This one's a biggy and I wish I had practised it earlier. We are often given the same advice when it comes to relationships, that it’s better out than in, and this should be applied to our business dealings too. No matter what people say about ‘professionalism’, don’t suppress negative emotions at work. By saying this, I’m not suggesting we voice our feelings about every single issue—this can be taxing for everyone around us, but when we are being treated unfairly or being disrespected, we speak up. It’s important to approach the person involved with a clear head and consistent tone, expression and posture. This will not only help one feel confident, it will also get the message across in a powerful and assertive way. For example, instead of yelling and saying, “You are wrong, I can’t believe you, how dare you say/do that!”, say, “This situation really isn’t making me feel comfortable. These are the reasons why… shall we take a step back and reassess what’s gone wrong here?” See the difference between the two? From someone who spent most of her work life bottling emotions till they burst out, I can honestly say, internalising emotions can be extremely detrimental to the health of the employee and that of the employer.
Overwork, overdeliver—right? Not quite
Our over-worked, under-rested self is no good to anyone: not to our employer, not to our family and especially not to ourselves. In a world governed by technology, it’s easy to fall into the trap of working all the time. However, it doesn’t do us any favours, not to mention the fact that it can literally kill us. Even forgetting the number of health issues associated with being overworked, we actually stop being productive when we work more than 50 hours a week. Our brain requires balance in order to perform at its peak. I 100 percent regret the amount I used to work; it even managed to land me in hospital, after which I did not fully recover for 5 months. People don’t realise the importance that rest plays in our lives, until of course, it’s too late. If a boss does not support one’s work-life balance, it might be time to start searching for another job. Some tips: keep a separate cell phone for work and personal life, don’t invite the phone to dinner, turn phones off at least two hours before heading to bed, don’t work more than 50 hours per week (unless it’s really urgent), and plan activities for the weekend that rejuvenate rather than exhaust.
Create boundaries and hold people accountable for their actions
When we become acclimatised to a toxic work environment, our self-esteem can often plummet and we can begin ‘normalising’ a bad situation, making it impossible to assess anything with clarity. It’s a little similar to when a person chooses to stay in an abusive relationship and can’t see what’s wrong with it.
Here are five ‘bad-boss’ situations that might hit home and some suggestions on how they can be addressed:
1) The boss who tells us to “take ownership” of a project, then, once it’s complete, tells us to “change everything” because they don’t like it
I can’t begin to stress how appalling this situation really is, yet so many people allow it to happen because they are ‘scared’ of their boss. A good leader is not one that we should fear, it is one who we should look up to and can learn from in a safe environment. To deal with this scenario, the best approach is to disallow it from getting to the point where the project is complete prior to the decision maker seeing it (even if that’s exactly what they have suggested). Create a WIP for the project; share it with the person in charge, and schedule regular meetings to go over each stage. Encourage collaboration and use any good input the decision maker offers to enhance the project. Of course, doing all this can get a little tricky when the person is unavailable. I address this next.
2) The boss who is never available when we seek their advice but suddenly becomes available when it’s time to criticise
I like to call this the case of the ghost-boss. A boss who is either nowhere to be found or is ‘too busy’ when needed, but then suddenly appears out of nowhere and says, “Boo! Gotcha buster!”. Sadly, this is not a ghost tale. My boss used to do exactly that: he was hardly ever in the office and when he was, he would tell everyone he was busy. We would all then go away and get the work done, only to have him hold a random team meeting (when he decided he was free) to pull everything apart without any regard for the work that had gone into it so far. The only way to tackle an issue like this is to do it head on: talk to the boss in question and let them know how it’s affecting progress. A good boss will take concerns onboard and make a decision to either be alive and involved, let someone else make the decisions, or be dead and not play Casper. Although to be fair, Casper was a friendly ghost and people didn’t mind him popping up. If talking to the boss does not result in this, it might be time for the affected party to disappear instead.
3) The boss who is unprofessional and belittles us in front of our colleagues
A boss who does this either has some serious self-esteem issues and the belittling feeds their ego, or is absolutely clueless when it comes to basic professional conduct. If it’s the latter, making them aware of their behaviour should hopefully nip the problem in the bud. Reflecting on my personal experience, my boss was both; he had serious self-esteem issues, with the bonus of being clueless. This can make the situation harder to resolve. For example, because my boss had a tendency to feel threatened by me, it meant that even if I constructively brought up the out-of-line behaviour, he would automatically go on the defensive and be unable to absorb anything I said. The height of his lack of professionalism was reached when he fired one of our part-timers during a team meeting. Being a small company, we didn’t have an HR department so once a matter was dismissed, there wasn’t much more that we could do about it. Yes, she could have raised a personal grievance but sometimes it’s not worth it. In saying that, I do believe in fighting for our rights, but it’s really up to each individual and whether their mindset is ready for the battle. So aside from extreme situations like the one just described, what does belittling look like? Disciplining workers publically, micromanaging (this is a form of mistrust) and continuous criticism are some of the main elements that make up belittling behaviour. Look out for them and address them as they occur; if they are ignored for too long they will only get worse and result in a situation like my own.
4) The boss who leaves at 5pm and tells us “not to stay too late” while having overloaded us with work that even Superman couldn’t complete in the allocated timeframe
Every time my boss would leave work and say this, our entire team wanted to reply to him saying, “Well you know that won’t happen because if we do, we won’t meet deadlines and you’ll yell at us”. The funny thing is, we were all so scared of our boss, that when we did stay long hours, sometimes all night, we would be so terrified of him finding out and asking us why we couldn’t ‘manage ourselves’ and the workload, that we almost always kept it a secret. In fact, one morning we even went to the extreme of making our clothes look different so he didn’t know we had stayed all night. He was basically a ‘hands-off’, ‘hands-on’ boss. Hands-off meaning, he had no idea about the realities of a task, nor was he willing to provide the resources needed to meet the terrible deadlines he set, and he never really wanted to play a part in learning how the ‘machine’ worked. ‘Hands-on’ meaning, he set the deadlines, constantly changed priorities, and was quick as a fox to ‘discipline’ us or blame people for anything that went wrong. How to deal with this? A good way to deal with a boss that sets unrealistic deadlines and throws too many projects into the works is to help them understand the scope of work: get time estimates from each team member, create a document that lists and tracks everything required and be ready to re-estimate the moment something seems to be taking longer than previously expected.
5) The backstabbing boss
They certainly exist, just like the backstabbing friend or co-worker. The moment this happens, warning bells should begin ringing because a slandering boss is a lot worse than the other varieties as they have a direct impact on office culture. My boss used to badmouth members of our team all the time. Anytime something went wrong, he would blame someone that wasn’t there. I can only imagine what he was saying when I wasn’t there. This isn’t good for team morale, and it certainly doesn’t set a good example. If this type of behaviour pops up, re-direct the conversation to something more positive. Even though at times it may seem tempting, don’t indulge in it and allow it to fester. If the badmouthing continues, ask the boss to communicate the issues directly with the person they are talking about so that the problems can be resolved. Practising this every time the problem arises should hopefully, lead to a change in the bad behaviour—now wouldn’t that be a great achievement.
Let’s not allow ourselves to be set up to fail
There’s a syndrome that’s called ‘the set up to fail syndrome’ and it’s real. It’s when a vicious cycle comes into play for a boss and their worker. A worker may make a mistake, miss a deadline or mess up a deal, and the boss begins getting worried about their perceived lack of performance. In order to improve the situation, the boss micromanages the worker. Doing this can cause the worker to believe that the boss does not trust them and has lost confidence in them. This can then lead to a loss of self-esteem and withdrawal from the workplace. Once this happens, the worker’s performance is affected more significantly than before, solidifying the worries that the boss was having earlier on. A book, The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail, by Harvard Business Review, describes it as “[. . .] a dynamic in which capable employees who are mistaken for mediocre or weak performers live down to low expectations, and often end up out of the organization—of their own volition or not”. Being aware of the cycle and taking the steps to stop it from spiralling out of control can save workers from emotional distress, and companies from high turnovers. For a worker to turn around a mediocre categorisation is only possible if they acknowledge the cycle and decide to persevere. However, given their position in the team hierarchy compared to that of their boss, this can be particularly hard for a worker to do. Bosses therefore, also have the responsibility to take the steps to create a safe environment for an open discussion with the worker and assist them in turning things around. The discussion should include an acknowledgement of the cycle and how to overcome it so that a healthy relationship can once more be built between the boss and worker.
Hand selected reading: a collection of articles from around the web, to help those that are experiencing difficulties in the workplace.
5 Traits Of The Worst Leaders And How To Avoid Them
Harvard Business Review
The Right Way to Hold People Accountable
Dealing With Your Incompetent Boss
The Rise of Toxic Leadership and Toxic Workplaces