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How to prepare for encounter with a 'boss from hell'

Published:Sunday | January 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

You are in a tough spot. Your boss, whom you thought of as a nice person, has turned into a monster as evidenced by his or her terrible behaviour towards another employee.

How do you prepare for an inevitable showdown in which you are the next likely victim?

Abusive managers don't just spring up overnight. Instead, they send off early warning signs that are clear to all who choose to see for themselves.

They shout at employees, reducing them to tears. Or, they break promises of bonuses, letting employees discover the fact in their next pay cheque. Or, they spread rumours and half-truths when their subjects of criticism aren't nearby, never confronting them directly.

Their actions are no different from those of plantation overseers who also used bullying tactics to get their own way.

These days, you might understand why. They are playing out their own psychological issues in the workplace, with their subordinates as the unwilling audience in a larger-than-life, but very real drama.

Initially, as you watch the action unfold and other people fall victim, you may ask yourself, "Will that ever happen to me?"

Many of us believe that we're safe. We tell ourselves that the shouting, lying or backstabbing that has happened to someone else won't ever be directed at us. Our reasons lull us into a sense of complacency that is based on denial - a lie. Finally, we convince ourselves that we have no other choice: quitting is not an option in these recessionary times.

Instead of being terminally stuck and giving up, what's a better course of action to take?

Stop the denial

My experience with local companies reveals that abuse is rampant, and even sometimes encouraged.

Managers who realise that their actions cause emotional pain seem to be trapped in an old, historical paradigm. They refuse to take responsibility or attempt a change in behaviour, unable and unwilling to treat employees as equals.

To gauge the depth of this reality, observe how few of us are willing to treat helpers as 'equals'.

Abuse doesn't go away if it's ignored, and it's a very safe bet that your manager's worst behaviour will one day be directed at you. It's not personal, so don't fool yourself into thinking that you are protected because of superior performance or a friendship.

Their unhappiness won't stop just because you think you are special. You need to get yourself ready for the moment when you become their intended victim.

Create healthy alternatives

While your fear may cause you to live in hope, and therefore, dull your stress for a while, that's a set-up for failure. It's better to get ready.

Prepare your resume. Build your network. Find other projects to work on. Request a transfer. Engage in personal development with a business coach. Get promoted. Start your own company.

I have seen professionals use these and other techniques to end relationships with abusive managers before they became painful. Consider them seriously, knowing that you always have a choice, even when you don't think that you do.

If you honestly think you have no choices, find a good friend who can help you see otherwise.

Prepare yourself for the all-important moment

If, with full awareness, you decide to stay in a bad working relationship, then ready yourself for the moment when the abusive behaviour lands at your doorstep.

Start by finding a friend who is willing to help. Spend an afternoon during a quiet weekend, and ask your colleague to role-play several conversations in which they demonstrate the bad behaviour. As they act it out, try different responses until you find one that works. Then, repeat it until you feel confident.

Use a book, such as Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler and Roppe, to get some guidance. After a couple hours of practice, you'll have something that most people don't: actual skills that can be used in the moment when the abuse occurs. Keep these skills sharp.

Understand that this future but all-important moment might be a turning point in your relationship with your boss.

When it actually comes, the skill of your response is likely to permanently reshape your work with that manager, creating an echo throughout your career that lasts for several years.

Take it seriously. If others can spend hundreds of hours preparing for a 10-second race, surely you can spend a few hours improving the odds for success in such a critical moment in your career.

The fact that you have a 'boss from hell' today need not derail your overall growth as a professional.

Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and author of 'Bill's Im-Perfect Time Manage-ment Adventure'. Email