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Working for You Isn't Working for Me

A difficult relationship with a boss can take a negative toll on your health, your home life, and your daily experience at work. Here's how to detect when things are going South, and how to take control.
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A difficult relationship with a boss can take a negative toll on your health, your home life, and your daily experience at work. When you're caught in one of these stressful associations - whether it involves a boss who yells, a micromanager, a constant critic, or a spineless leader - you may feel as if you're the one with the problem.

In our book, Working for You Isn't Working for Me - The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Boss, we identify the predictable phases of a toxic boss/employee relationship. The idea is to detect where you are in the relationship because if you can identify where you are, you can begin to take control. Here's what it looks like:

Phase One: The Honeymoon Period.

This phase begins at the start of a new job, following a promotion, after a transfer, or following a change in management. During this phase, two things happen:

  1. Each person is on his or her best behavior.
  • Each person naturally dismisses early warning signs that the other person may be problematic.
  • What's an early warning sign? It could be the fact that your potential boss keeps you waiting for an hour before your first interview. Or, perhaps you witness a seemingly cordial executive address the receptionist in a biting, sarcastic tone. Other examples: smelling alcohol on a new boss's breath mid-day, having your boss confess a slew of personal troubles, or noticing that your new supervisor interrupts you every time you speak.

    Why do we dismiss these early indicators? The simplest answer is that we don't want to spoil the honeymoon. We want things to work out.

    Phase Two: Internal Alarm

    During this second phase, something strange happens. What began with great promise suddenly takes a downward turn. You haven't changed, but your boss's behavior towards you is markedly different.

    The person who initially seemed eager for your ideas now shoots holes in your proposal. The boss who expressed great confidence in your judgment aggressively questions every decision you make. The executive who once called your input "invaluable" suddenly excludes you from important meetings

    These incidents set off an internal alarm, and your body reacts. You feel a crater forming in your gut. Your thoughts begin to race, and your heart beats faster. You don't want to admit it, but some part of you knows that the honeymoon is over.

    Phase Three: Re-start, Try Harder

    When faced with the changing tide, you try to steer the relationship back to its positive beginning. You focus on reinstating yourself with the boss. You hope that by increasing your efforts you'll prove that the alarming moment was a glitch - not an emerging pattern.

    You redouble your attempts to be helpful and cooperative. Perhaps you try to wow your boss with even more productivity and dazzling results. Or, you quietly do your work, hoping that lying low will mitigate the situation.

    While you're putting your best foot forward on the outside, your mind works double time on the inside - Why am I being misunderstood? What might I be doing wrong? Have I done something inadvertently to fall out of favor?

    Phase Four: Disappointment

    Should your best efforts fail to produce the desired results, disappointment sets in. You have to admit that your boss is a far cry from what you expected. Now, if your boss says one thing and does another, you interpret that behavior as pathological, rather than an innocent mistake. The supervisor who lost her temper weeks ago emerges as a chronic berater. Or, the executive who once failed to confront an unruly co-worker, now appears spineless.

    During the disappointment phase, you might feel angry, hurt, confused, betrayed and generally let down. You may be tempted to bad-mouth the boss, or to wish for his or her demise.

    Phase Five, Rehearsing and rehashing

    In an attempt to gain control over your circumstances, you run events through your mind over and over again. You ask yourself (and others) a lot of questions: "What did I do to deserve this kind of treatment?" "Does this story make sense to you?" "What would you do if your boss acted that way?" "Am I crazy?" "Who can work under these circumstances?"

    People caught in rehearsing and rehashing spend hours obsessing about the boss. They revisit and review conversations, emails, meetings with this person in great detail. During this phase, you may question your sanity and be plagued with self-doubt.

    Phase Six: Anger and Blame

    Feeling victimized by your circumstances, it's easy to sulk and let others see how unhappy you are. Because you've been hurt and disappointed a number of times, it's very difficult to see your employer in anything but a negative light. In fact, in this phase it's common to wish for (and imagine) the boss's demise.

    Many employees in Anger and Blame grab every opportunity to bad-mouth the boss and gloat over his or her failures. Some try confronting the boss with less than positive results. Others retaliate in some way.

    Phase Seven: Emotional Pain turns Physical

    The mental and emotional anguish resulting from interactions with the boss convert into physical pain. It's common to develop back pain, headaches, chronic indigestion, TMJ, ulcers, insomnia, chronic fatigue, or high blood pressure. Some people gain or lose weight.

    People who hit this phase often feel physically depleted and emotionally drained. Just getting out of bed in the morning seems like a major accomplishment.

    How do you deal with a toxic Boss?

    If you saw yourself in one of the earlier stages of a toxic boss/employee relationship, you can take immediate steps to improve your situation. We recommend starting where you have the most power - with yourself. Take actions to:

    • Restore your energy - through exercise, meditation, or sports

  • Rebuild your confidence - by writing down your successes and showcasing your talents at trade shows, conferences, charitable events
  • Repair your emotional state - Circulate, don't isolate. Re-connect with family, professional contacts, and friends.
  • If you identified with the later phases, you may want to seek professional help in the form of a mentor, counselor or executive coach. You'll want expert assistance to begin mapping out a Working for You IS Working for Me plan.

    Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster are the coauthors of the New York Times bestseller Working with You Is Killing Me and the founders of the consulting firm K Squared Enterprises. Crowley is a Harvardtrained psychotherapist, and Elster is a business strategist. Both are speakers and consultants on workplace relationships.