How To Deal With Abusive Bosses And Unhealthy Management With “Engaged Indifference”

July 12th, 2011

In my previous post I described how abusive bosses and psychologically unhealthy management harm both employees and business success, and I explained that such behavior in the workplace is increasingly dysfunctional in today’s highly interconnected, interdependent economic and social environment. This follow-up piece offers some suggestions for dealing with such situations when you find yourself within them.

Many people struggle to find ways to better cope when subjected to unhealthy, abusive management. Often that means learning stress management techniques. They can be helpful, especially when you don’t think any alternatives exist. But ultimately, they aren’t enough. However, reframing how you envision your situation to begin with can open the door to proactive, positive actions in the situation you feel trapped in.

Cathy’s example contains some ways you can do that. She was at mid-level in her company and had a record of steady promotion. At one point, senior leadership in her area changed abruptly, and she was now reporting to a newly appointed boss. “I’m here to shake things up,” he told everyone when he took over. “Everyone’s job is on the line.”

Cathy’s assessment of her new boss was that he didn’t really know her area of expertise, nor was he very interested in learning about it. Nevertheless, he freely criticized her work. Moreover, he kept sitting on a promotion that she had been in line for.

It wasn’t just her: Her boss stirred up much resentment among others because of his arrogant, controlling, dismissive style. When Cathy researched something he had requested and presented it to him, he exploded, saying that she had wasted her time doing something that had “no relevance.” When she pointed out that he had requested the analysis to begin with, he denied it.

But Cathy didn’t just hunker down, become stressed and depressed, or feel disempowered. First, she used a meditative technique to focus her attention on just observing the negative emotions her boss’ behavior aroused in her. That is, she practiced “watching” her emotions as they passed through her. This helped her refrain from being pulled by angry emotions into greater, more debilitating depths, or into unproductive behavior.

Doing that enabled her, in turn, to step “outside” herself (that is, outside the narrow vantage point of her own ego). She looked at herself as if she were a character in a movie. She imagined rewriting the dialogue and actions of the character that was herself, and she envisioned how this “character” might create a different scenario.

This is a form of what I’ve called learning to “forget yourself” (that is, moving beyond and through your immediate self-interest to see yourself in a larger context). Cathy’s enlarged perspective enabled her to accept that her boss was simply acting in accordance with the person he was, regardless of the reasons or how she judged them. Doing that helped prevent her from being drawn into taking his behavior personally, even though it impacted her personally. She rose “above” her situations with, in effect, “engaged indifference.”

That is, she remained “indifferent” to her own emotional reactions, yet she stayed very engaged in looking for solutions from within her broadened perspective. She considered the possible viewpoints and agenda of her boss, from within his possible mindset. That added to her capacity to figure out what might be going on — and what might help.

For example, she thought about what might be some drivers of her boss’ behavior. Was he simply a jerk? An unskilled manager? Did he have an agenda that she didn’t understand? Was he dealing with some insecurities of his own? Personal issues at home? She did a little sleuthing and learned that her new boss had been brought in under a lot of pressure to create some major changes in that part of the organization. Moreover, she learned that he had a troubled teenager at home. Knowing these things didn’t change her opinion about his behavior, but it helped her realize that it would be useful to both of them if he didn’t think of her as a thorn in his side. And it was up to her to try to make that happen.

In essence, she saw the whole picture as a set of circumstances that created a “perfect storm” for her, and that called for an effective solution, from her. So, when her boss criticized a report she had prepared — on the grounds that it didn’t include something that he had previously told her to ignore, but which he now claimed he needed and had told her so — she anticipated that. Rather than reacting with anger, defensiveness or frustration, she simply said she would provide it immediately and asked how she could best help him with anything else that he needed at this point.

Now this may sound counterintuitive, or that it’s “giving in” to a tyrant. But from an enlarged perspective of indifference and engagement, it’s not. That’s because you’re taking into account the emotional drivers and needs of the difficult person you’re dealing with. And you can’t do that if you’re driven solely by your own.

By stepping “outside” herself, Cathy saw some ways to provide her boss the support he need to feel, which, in turn, could help calm his anxieties. She asked him for ways that she could aid his objectives. At the same time, she decided to cede control of some areas that didn’t matter to her, but which her boss seemed to enjoy micromanaging. Cathy felt secure in the knowledge that her expertise wasn’t diminished by her boss’ agenda or his actions.

But there was one more important step that she took: looking down the road, Cathy concluded that her future under him was probably a dead end for the foreseeable future. So she immediately updated her resume and began looking for a new position. She kept her eyes on her own career development objectives, while at the same time navigating through her situation with as little friction as possible.

Learn To ‘Enlarge The Problem’

President Eisenhower once said, when speaking about his experience as Allied commander during World War II, that if you have difficulty understanding a problem or figuring out how to solve it, “enlarge the problem.” That’s what Cathy did. Her example provides some general guidelines that can help, at least in some situations. They include:

  • Create an emotional buffer zone. Observe your internal emotional responses to your situation, but recognize that you’re not obligated to act on them. Visualize a “space” between your emotions and how you choose to deal with them in your behavior. If you don’t, you’re likely to say or do something unhelpful or damaging to yourself. That is, stay fully aware of your buttons that your boss is pushing, but separate that from simply reacting to what he’s triggered, or from taking his behavior personally. Don’t get drawn into reacting to your boss’ emotional issues. Recognize that you always have a choice about what you do with your emotions in your conduct.
  • Expand your perspective. By not reacting externally to your internal reactions, you are, in effect, learning to be “indifferent” to them. This allows you to enlarge your perspective about the whole situation: what’s feeding into it, and what’s driving your boss’ conduct. When you expand your vision beyond your personal, narrow vantage point, you can see the problem in a much larger context. That includes the multiple factors that feed into it, such as the role of other players or other organizational issues and politics, regardless of what your opinion is about them. This includes getting inside your boss’ mental perspective to understand what he or she may be sensitive to or reacting to. For example, some of your boss’ controlling or abusive behavior may reflect fear about her or his own security in the position.
  • Create productive actions with “engaged indifference.” That means staying proactively engaged with solving the problem, yet “indifferent” to your own emotional reactions. Then, you avoid getting sucked into unproductive behavior fueled by anger, resentment or self-pity, or staying fixed within too narrow an understanding of the problem, which leads to a dead end.

Ask yourself what you can do proactively, even if it means “feeding the dog what it wants to eat,” regardless of your opinion of your boss’ choice of “food.” Visualize alternative takes of the “movie” about your situation, as Cathy did. Use them to identify some new actions that reflect “turns of the plot.”

You might decide to go along with some parts of your situation, because your enlarged perspective enables you to see down the road, as you might from the rooftop of a building. You may decide that that’s the best strategy for achieving your longer-range objectives. That might sound like “giving in,” but it’s not when you know what you’re doing and why. For example, you might look for ways to help your boss feel more secure or supported, despite what you think of him or her, because that diminishes your boss’ anxiety and will therefore make your life a bit easier, as long as you remain there.

Of course, it’s important to self-examine at the outset, when you find yourself in a bad situation. Look honestly, with outside help, if necessary, at what you might be contributing to the problem. Ask yourself, “How much is it me or the situation?” Without doing that, you might take actions that you later regret or that prove to be unhelpful.

Finally, it’s crucial to leave any situation that becomes outright abusive, or if you’re subjected to humiliation and extreme denigration. And then, do the research when considering a new job: look for signs of a potentially negative situation, tune in to what you hear during interviews, ask people within the organization what it’s like to work for that company or that boss, heed any red flags raised by what you hear, and don’t enable history to repeat itself.

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Midlife Conflict and Renewal, Psychological health in a post-globalized world, Work & Career "4.0"

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