Recently, a friend of mine lost a job that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It happened because he allowed himself to get pulled into a dangerous power struggle with a bad boss. He mistakenly thought that, if he pressed his case strongly enough, he would win.
Each time we spoke, he described how the conflict grew, intensified and deepened. But he was so entrenched and emotionally involved in it that, no matter how much we talked, he would step ever deeper into the mire. He finally crossed the line the boss was waiting for him to cross, and the company asked for his resignation.
“I guess I did it to myself,” he said — and, gosh, did he ever.
Up to a point, I believe it is possible to handle the bad boss. Knowing how to do it is a major part of being an effective steward of one’s own career. It requires one key step that can be extremely challenging for lawyers: getting one’s ego out of the way.
Getting the ego out of the way means becoming clear about the desired outcome. Does the lawyer working for a bad boss want to be right? Be vindicated? Win? (These are extremely common, seductive goals for those who choose the legal profession.) Or, is her goal retaining as much control as possible over the direction of her career, looking past the current difficulty and determining her own direction — refusing to give that power to a small-minded schmuck?
It may take some wrestling to give up the need to be right vis-à-vis the bad boss. But, I’m going to assume most lawyers, deep down, want to retain control of their careers — including when they resign, if the situation comes to that.
After putting aside the need to win, it’s important to understand the kind of bad boss: the obvious psychopath and the incompetent. (Sometimes the incompetent is also a psychopath.) I’ll talk more about an incompetent boss in a later column. But, for now, let’s stick with the psychopath.
A psychopath simply does not care about others — at all. He views people as packages of resources to mine and discard when empty. He quite often appears charming and harmless, particularly in early employment, and he knows how to engender accomplices.
The key for a lawyer seeking to discern whether her particular bad boss is a psychopath is to trust her intuition but not to act on it. Intuition will reveal that this person is a little too slick, a little too polished and charming. A psychopathic bad boss surrounds himself with sycophants and accomplices. He is always capable of bending rules to suit himself, while seducing others into colluding with him.
The astute lawyer’s job is to notice all this while resisting the temptation to fall into a campaign to “out” him. “Be like smoke” is what I advise people unfortunate enough to have this bad boss. Smoke is a vapor, a nonsolid. It offers no resistance. Someone who works for a psychopathic bad boss should disappear as a target.
Another way of visualizing this strategy comes from martial arts: A reed bends but does not break. These strategies are aimed at retaining control of one’s position. Entering into direct conflict is playing the bad boss’ game.
People who work for a bad boss must behave at all times in a way that gives them maximum control over their employment while scouting exit strategies if they decide the work situation just isn’t worth it. This means never giving this bad boss the ammunition he needs to steal control.
That sounds great, but how specifically can a lawyer do this? She can study her own emotions about the bad boss, much as if she was watching the clouds in the sky. Clouds provide information on the weather. In the same way, emotions reveal valuable information on what is transpiring in the bad-boss relationship.
However, this study should be purely observational, not participatory. By that I mean the lawyer must not feed her own emotions into any interaction with the bad boss. If she does, she hands the bad boss everything he needs to hang her.
Just to make sure I’ve made my point: Emotionally engaging with the bad boss is suicide. Instead, the lawyer must remember that tactics will help her defend herself, not defeat the bad boss.
These tactics are things mothers try to teach their children, such as manners, timeliness and professionalism. It’s important to adopt these traits not in a manipulative or sycophantic way but rather in a manner that recognizes that the bad boss occupies a higher place in the organization chart.
Knowing how to function within one’s place in a hierarchy is one of the hallmarks of centered adult life, in the same way that constantly attempting to usurp the hierarchy is a hallmark of adolescence. Often, simple professionalism eventually will result in the bad boss hanging himself rather than his employees, because they steadfastly have refused to engage at his level.
It is also worth knowing that fear is an appropriate response to a psychopathic bad boss, but the lawyer who works for this version of a bad boss must not show that fear. Psychopaths are experts at sensing fear; once they do, their bloodlust becomes compelling. The tactic they use to handle that fear is simple, adult, centered professionalism.
I noted at the beginning that I believe it’s possible to handle bad bosses most of the time. However, if a lawyer’s psychopathic bad boss is a particularly dangerous one, he may not be satisfied with simply having power over her; he may need to show it, as well. If he becomes clearly abusive, the lawyer will have to make a judgment call, which may mean involving human resources.
This is a gray area. But, obviously, when a bad boss’ behavior transgresses legal boundaries regarding workplace discrimination and harassment, it’s time to bring in HR and formulate an exit strategy. But, calling in an HR intervention is like pulling a loaded gun on an intruder: Once you do it, you are committed to using it and dealing with all the consequences it brings.
Sadly, this is where no adviser can accompany the lawyer unfortunate enough to work for a psychopathic bad boss. It’s the no-man’s land of needing to act in self-preservation without knowing the outcome. But, a lawyer must act: calling in HR, being ready to resign, looking for another job and perhaps consulting an employment lawyer. Life’s too short to live that way.
James Dolan, M.A., is a professional coach and psychotherapist with 30 years of experience in private practice in the Dallas area. He works with lawyers and physicians in improving their business development, communications, internal relations, and leadership and client-patient retention. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.