Like clockwork, twice a week our boss picked someone to tear apart in staff meetings. Although she was a brilliant and visionary engineer and entrepreneur—and she knew how to hire exceptional people—her leadership and management skills left a lot to be desired. She skipped over the love or respect conundrum many women leaders face, and went straight to fear and domination.
Since I had just moved across the country with my two small children to take the job, quitting wasn’t an option. I wasn’t the only one affected either; the whole team struggled. Can teams succeed despite a toxic boss? We needed new coping skills fast. Here's what we did.
Adapt to the Reality and Help Each Other
Initially, as the newest person on the team, the humiliation of it all paralyzed me. Continually terrified about losing my livelihood, I feared I would never gain my colleagues’ respect under such circumstances. Building up my courage to talk about feeling ashamed was the first step in fostering personal and team resilience.
Making connections helps to defuse the feelings of isolation that come with shame, according to Psychology Today. It’s natural to want to withdraw, but it turns out, my colleagues felt the same way I did. Sharing compassion was calming and empowering. We learned to short-circuit each other’s feelings of personal shame after staff meetings by reaching out to the victim of the day with empathy and humor. The phrase "thanks for taking one for the team today,” became our mantra.
Pro Tip: Hard as it seems, it is possible to reframe embarrassment into constructive thinking. Need more help with this? Check out the strategies provided by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace in Canada.
Shift the Focus
Once we got better at emotionally weathering the boss’s storms, we focused on eliminating the triggers for her outbursts. We concentrated on communicating the impact and results of our work and saved discussions about processes and problems for meetings without her. Of course, we kept her informed, we merely worked out the tricky issues without her and presented her with solutions.
This approach gave our moody boss confidence we were getting things done. As a result, we were better able to focus on what was important to her. She could clearly see our high performing team in action.
Still, it is especially hard to recover from an actual mistake when you’re already tamping down defensiveness. Here's where you need to own your career and professionalism. If you messed up a task, admit your mistake and skip the blame game. Fix it as best you can and move on, advises behavior change specialist Bryan Falchuk on Inc.com.
Pro Tip: Harvard Business Review writer Carolyn O’Hara recommends focusing on your boss’s words and not her tone as a strategy for keeping your working relationship on track. That technique makes it easier to stay calm.
Prioritize Relationships within the Team
For us, personal and team validation turned out to be a key strategy for coping with our Devil-Wears-Prada diva. Thankfully, this is a skill you get better at with practice. It helped our group stay productive through some tough moments. We recognized the power of this technique and actively used it to onboard newbies who joined the team over time.
One trait of highly productive teams is trust between co-workers. The need for trust is especially real when dealing with a volatile manager. Use the “cone-of-silence” so teammates can vent and move on feeling better. Make confidentiality and professionalism a core value. Discourage gossip and rumor-mongering because such breaches will backfire on you, it’s just a matter of time. If gossip is rampant in your company, read How to Manage Gossip at Work.
Pro Tip: Build personal and team resilience by celebrating accomplishments, and actively contribute to the health of your organization. The principles of individual and group health in the workplace are universal. For seven ways to check if you and your team are on track to be effective team members, read Characteristics of Good Work Team Members. You might find, as I did, that despite the challenges of an ornery boss, your team thrives.
By Deborah Hill