ELAINY MATA: What makes a boss bad? Would you be able to tell the difference between a boss who’s just not great at their job, or maybe your personalities are just clashing a bit versus a boss that’s actually toxic. Welcome to New Here, honest conversations and practical advice to help you play the game called “Work.” I’m Elainy Mata, and this week we’re talking about how to handle your first bad boss.
Okay. This may feel a little pessimistic, but the reality is at some point you will have a bad boss, maybe even a few. I learned that pretty early. In one of my first jobs, my boss talked about me behind my back and created a really toxic environment that spread to other people on the team. And the thing is, I actually thought her behavior was my fault. I didn’t totally grasp that experience and what it did to me until after I had left that job and I’m still working through it in therapy. The problem I was facing was that my boss was a bully, which is a super common type of bad boss. We asked our listeners to tell us about the bad bosses they’ve had, and we definitely heard about bullies.
SPEAKER 2: My boss used to tell me that he was giving me the most important work because the rest of the team was not as experienced as I was. Yet I was humiliated and made to feel small in each and every team meeting that we used to have. I used to cry, wait for the weekend and take that humiliation quietly. My mental health took a massive hit.
ELAINY MATA: But other folks told us about bosses that are terrible in less obvious ways.
SPEAKER 3: I was working at a startup recruiting firm, and when I first met my boss, she was actually an hour late to our first interview, which was the first clue for me or first sign for me that punctuality wasn’t necessarily her strong suit.
ELAINY MATA: That’s the classic unreliable boss, and then there’s the boss who just doesn’t do their job.
SPEAKER 4: Sometimes we’ll get patients that call to speak to a manager because they’re upset about something, whether it’s a bill, instead of the boss picking up the phone to resolve the situation, she will tell me what to say so that I could say to the patient. The fact that I have to pretend that I’m a manager or I’m a higher up just because my boss doesn’t feel like doing it, that makes her a bad boss.
ELAINY MATA: If any of this sounds familiar, believe me, I get it. Today, we’ll learn how to protect ourselves from a bad boss and how to heal afterward. Leadership coach Robyn L. Garrett is here to help us understand why bosses become bad. That’s something she talks about a lot on TikTok.
ROBYN L. GARRETT: Thank you for calling Build-A-Boss. How can I help you? Millennial boss. Yes, interesting choice. Let’s go ahead and get you set up. We need to start you off with our millennial base, which is crippling anxiety, and then they will be respectful of your boundaries, but they themselves will be a severe workaholic of course.
ELAINY MATA: And surprise, surprise, Robyn has some personal experience with this. Her first bad boss experience was rough, but it actually changed her career for the better. Robyn, before we begin, I’m really curious about you posting stories about bad bosses in the first place on TikTok and just publicly. Why do you think it’s important to you to share these stories and to be so open about bad boss stories in the first place?
ROBYN L. GARRETT: One thing that happens is when you’re in a scenario with a bad boss, you’re often made to feel really alone and isolated, and that gives you very little power. And just being able to share your story and hear stories of other people who have been in similar situations, I find is a big relief.
ELAINY MATA: How do you know when it’s just a bad mismatch of you as the employee and you as the company versus this is just a bad boss?
ROBYN L. GARRETT: Yeah, I have a secret trick for this. It’s a secret superpower. I have found that defining your personal values can be tremendously powerful at navigating an issue like this. Not only which values are the most important to you, but which ones do you actively oppose? And then you have some watch outs, right? If you’ve got some things that are on your negative values list, keep an eye out for those items because we know when we feel gross, we know when we have that negative, “This is not a good fit for me feeling,” but we don’t always know why. But if you’ve taken the time to define your values, it can make it much, much clearer.
ELAINY MATA: And I think it would give me pause because it’s like, “Oh, what are my values then?” Because I’ve just been so used to working for somebody else that I don’t really think about what my values are and that I have control and power of picking where I want to go that matches that.
ROBYN L. GARRETT: If it’s a case where you really value teamwork, but your boss actively pits people against one another, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is an either or situation. They could be a bad boss and they could conflict with your values, but that’s a way to know this is just not going to work for me because we’re never going to not only see eye to eye, we’re going to have this active conflict for the rest of our relationship.
ELAINY MATA: Do you recommend that I find strength in numbers when I’m dealing with a bad boss, or is it really just better to approach them directly and communicate that problem?
ROBYN L. GARRETT: A lot of times, approaching them directly and confronting them is not a successful strategy, unfortunately. I wish that everything was that simple, but if you think about you and your boss as being in a relationship that has a variety of factors, their factors and your factors, I think that’s a little bit of a better way to approach it. What are their needs? What are their motivations? What are your needs? What are your motivations? How do those things clash? But how can they also work together? And are there ways that the two of you can compromise? If you’ve got a boss that’s pretty invested in your success, then great. They’re going to be more willing to compromise. They’re going to be more thoughtful about how they interact with you. If you’ve got somebody who’s really stuck in their ways and is telling you, “This is the line, this is the way things are,” then it’s going to be difficult and you’re going to need to be more unfortunately politically savvy on how to navigate that relationship.
ELAINY MATA: What do you mean by being politically savvy?
ROBYN L. GARRETT: Yeah, let’s say for example that you’ve got a really tough boss, but you still want to succeed in that situation. Great. Honestly, empathy is a great leadership skill at any level, and it works here too. Even if you are a brand new entry level employee and you want to try and figure out how to navigate this, understanding their motivations and their interests is a great first step here. For example, a lot of bosses are financially motivated. They’re all about their KPIs and their metrics. If you come to them and you share your insights and feelings, they’re probably not going to respond to that. But if you come to them with hard data that you’ve carefully researched and then packaged in a way that is suited to their preferences for consuming information, you can be a lot more successful that way. I have personally found many successes by using that strategy, and it’s the reverse also, if you come to somebody who’s really much more interested in the story side of things with hard data, they’re not going to be as motivated by that. And there’s a bunch of different types of motivational factors, getting to know what those are, and then not changing who you are in order to adapt and fit that other person, but changing your communication style can be very successful, and that is political. That’s you weaving in and out of this situation, deciding how you want to influence it.
ELAINY MATA: It’s like adaptability, seeing how my boss or my manager likes to communicate or likes to receive information.
ROBYN L. GARRETT: Yes.
ELAINY MATA: Oh my God, their love language. What’s my boss’s love language? And I’ll give them information that way.
ROBYN L. GARRETT: That’s right. Because you can’t take responsibility for somebody else’s actions. You can only be responsible for you. You don’t have to try to change this person if that’s not in the cards for you. Can you work on the relationship? Almost always. Right? And that is a good faith effort and especially if they’re coming into it with good faith too. But it’s important to protect yourself at all times, make sure you’re taking care of you because they’re not always going to, unfortunately.
ELAINY MATA: Can I give you a bad boss story of mine?
ROBYN L. GARRETT: Ooh, I Would love to hear about this story.
ELAINY MATA: Here’s the tea. I got an opportunity to work on a project that was lasting a couple of months. It was more contract, and the person who I would directly report to would talk about me inappropriately in front of other coworkers, either behind my back or in front of my face. And of course, she was one that was like, “If you ever need help, you can come to me.” But she never established that trust, and that rapport bled into the other coworkers. I never really got along with them.
ROBYN L. GARRETT: Absolutely. Now you’ve been isolated in a way, you’ve been dictated to. Now it’s always on the leader to establish that trust in the relationship, and I would call this the immature leader, somebody who’s not probably emotionally prepared for the responsibilities of leadership. You can see this in people of all ages, but if this is somebody who was not particularly experienced with leadership, they’re breaking a lot of boundaries there. There’s a big correlation between people who end up in leadership positions and people who are really good at positioning themselves as being correct. This person doesn’t sound like they’re focused on the right things, the things that are going to build a strong cohesive team that can accomplish great things together. They’re really just focused on the power.
ELAINY MATA: Yeah. Do you have a bad boss story that you don’t mind sharing?
ROBYN L. GARRETT: Yeah, I’ll tell you one from a long while back. I was working in an international position and I was earlier in my career, so my goal at the time was to advance. I had goals for myself. I wanted to be a manager by this point, a director by this point, I had these ideas for myself. Because I was working internationally, that meant that I had clients who were active at all different times of the day. We would have these 2:00 AM conference calls that would go on for two and a half hours with this international board in the APAC sector.
ELAINY MATA: Oh, wow.
ROBYN L. GARRETT: And I wasn’t communicating. And my boss was coming to me with assignment after assignment, and between that person and me, we didn’t have a relationship figured out where I was in a good situation. I just overworked myself to a pretty extreme point, and I eventually had to take time off and regroup, and then eventually I started a new role. I don’t totally blame that situation on another person necessarily. Did I get a lot of pressure put on me? Yes. Did I learn things from that? Yes. Would I encourage other people to react the same way that I did? Absolutely not.
ELAINY MATA: You decided to leave at that job. That’s how you protected your mental health. There was nothing that you felt you could continue to do while you were there?
ROBYN L. GARRETT: I did. Before that, I tried a lot of different strategies. I tried to communicate with this person, but they were very aggressive and they took advantage of me because I was young and I didn’t know better. That’s often a systemic thing that businesses do. They get people who they don’t cost a lot to hire. There’s not a lot of repercussion if they flush out of the organization, and they just chew up this young talent and see what happens, and there’s not any consequences for them for that. But I didn’t know that. I just thought, “Wow, there’s so much that I need to do. I need to go and go and go and go.” And I tried to do that to the best of my ability, and you tell yourself things, everything. “I’m going to eat better,” and then I feel better and I have more energy and I can do more, or, “I’m going to get up earlier.” I see this especially with women who try and cram so much into their lives, things that they need to achieve. “What if I wake up earlier?” But there’s a limit to how much those things can be successful if you’re really in a situation that’s not interested in your mental health or just interested in getting as much juice out of you as possible.
ELAINY MATA: How did you know that you needed to leave and how did you heal from that afterward?
ROBYN L. GARRETT: To be totally transparent, I was having panic attacks, and I thought to myself, “I just need to manage these panic attacks and then I’m going to be fine. I can get back to my hard driving self. It’ll be totally great.” And eventually I found that I could not manage it. I could not manage the level of stress, and a lot of pressure was getting put on me from my boss at the time. They were giving me really aggressive messaging, and they were really unpleasant to work with, unpleasant to be around. And I felt really helpless in the situation. And one of the major factors in my stress is like, “I have to get away from this person. This person is really giving me a lot of negative thoughts, a lot of anxiety, a lot of panic. They’re exacerbating my underlying negative traits as opposed to helping me figure out how to be better and discover my own power.” And I eventually had to go on a leave of absence from that, and it was not an easy healing process. I had to take some significant time to look at my mental health and decompress from such a stressful situation. I think a lot of people have had jobs like that where even after you leave the job, it takes some time to mentally sort out what all had been going on there. And I think one of the things that scared me was, “What does this mean about me? Does it mean that I’m a failure?” And I’ll just tell you, for anybody who’s wondering that, the answer is no. The answer is you are doing everything you can in this situation and that’s admirable, but you don’t have to do it forever. It’s okay to take a break. I took a significant break of a couple of weeks and I decided I wasn’t going to go back to that. I was going to seek out a new situation, and I did, and it ended up being one of the best moves for my career. The job that I moved into was something that I was in for a long time, and it was a really successful organization and a successful job for me. If I had stayed in that original situation, I probably would have just struggled for longer and longer.
ELAINY MATA: I didn’t talk about my bad boss situation until two, three years after the fact in therapy, and she had to be like, “I think you were actually set up to fail. It wasn’t even your fault.” And it was like, “What do you mean?”
ROBYN L. GARRETT: Because nobody else says that to you on your team or whatever. They say things like, “That’s just the way it is. Oh, if you want to succeed here, here’s what you have to do.” Nobody says to you, “Oh, wow. Look at these systemic factors that are influencing your ability to succeed here.” People don’t want to tap into those difficult issues, and often it’s because they don’t have any power over them either.
ELAINY MATA: Thank you for being open and honest about that.
ROBYN L. GARRETT: I think it’s important. We don’t hear enough real stories, and it just seems like everyone around you is fine, but everyone around you is not fine. I think we know that pretty well, and I think the more we talk about it, the more realistic and human we can be even in the workplace.
ELAINY MATA: That was leadership coach and author Robyn L. Garrett. You can find her @CourageousLeadership on TikTok and her new book, Happy at Work is out now. We’ve heard so many horror stories and I need a little pick me up. This is a great time to talk to somebody that I consider a good boss because I believe there are good ones out there. I used to work for Anita Sen back in college, and she became a mentor of mine, and I still call her for advice about work sometimes. After the break, we’ll get three really great tips from her that will help you to protect yourself from a bad boss. Be right back. Hey, Anita.
ANITA SEN: Hi.
ELAINY MATA: This is my former boss, Anita Sen, and she’s not just good. She’s maybe the best boss I’ve ever had. Okay. Maybe I’m a little bit biased. I worked for her in the theater department for four years when I was in college, and the funny thing is I actually had a hard time working for Anita at first. Oh, she was so tough. She had high standards, but I learned so much working for her and I’m still learning from her. I’ve always appreciated your advice anytime I was dealing with anything difficult with work, because you were, one, my boss before, so you know how I worked well and even when I made mistakes.
ANITA SEN: No, it’s definitely– I’ve always been honored that you’re still in contact and asking for help because it’s exciting to watch you grow and learn and also be able to have a conversation with you where you’re like, “Okay, I did this.” And I can say, “mmm” and you can be like, “I know. I know. I know.”
ELAINY MATA: We’re open about my mistakes. Always.
ANITA SEN: You have to be. That’s how you learn.
ELAINY MATA: Yeah. I know.
ANITA SEN: People forget that you don’t need to know everything about everything, and it’s okay to ask questions.
ELAINY MATA: Yeah.
ANITA SEN: One of my favorite examples from that is when I started working at the university and the chair kept talking about stuff, and at some point I just had to say, “I’m sorry, could you please clarify what a libretto is,” with this expectation that they thought I knew what was going on? And having them stop and back up and recognize like, “Oh, maybe I’m using a lingo that you don’t know yet.” Sometimes being brave enough to communicate calmly or ask questions calmly can actually help out quite a bit.
ELAINY MATA: That’s fair. You’ve mentioned something to me before about documentation, and I actually practice this now at work. I have a blog and I’ll write, “Okay, this is what happened today. This is what wasn’t so cool. This is what didn’t work out, and this is what was cool.” Can you explain why it’s important to document and give an example of how you do it?
ANITA SEN: There’s different versions of documentation. I think if you’re dealing with a boss that’s tough and you’re a little uncomfortable about what their viewpoint or how they’re going to react to things, documentation is great. Even directly to them. Even if you sit down, have a meeting with them, go over something that they want you to do, you’ve taken notes, you’ve done whatever. I think that emailing them and saying, “Okay, I just want to clarify. This is what you’re asking me to do. These are your priorities.” Whether or not they have a specific way they want you to do it, those types of things so that there isn’t any confusion down the line if they’re like, “Well, you didn’t do what I asked,” and you can say, “Well, I emailed you to confirm.” I think that if you get in situations where there’s definite inappropriate behavior, whether bullying, verbal, God forbid, anything of a different HR nature, I think very clearly documenting for yourself what was said, who was around, and trying to be as accurate as possible, just in case there is anything later on, that you have that, I love the idea that you do the notes on what was going on, because I think that’s also a great way to see patterns both in other people and ourselves.
ELAINY MATA: How do you document?
ANITA SEN: I’ll have a notebook that I keep in my bag that I’ll just, if there’s something that came up that I’m uncomfortable with, I’ll just jot everything down with the date and the time.
ELAINY MATA: One thing that you mentioned, looking at patterns or being able to see all your notes, just going back, you’re being able to remember everything. You’re being able to recognize patterns, and then you can go to your boss and say, “Hey, this has happened before.” Or, “Hey, I’ve written this down,” or, “Hey, I’m just going back to something that I’ve brought to your attention before.” The trickiest part about that is…
ANITA SEN: Presentation.
ELAINY MATA: Presentation.
ANITA SEN: Yes, definitely.
ELAINY MATA: And just sticking up for yourself in general, especially if you feel like you’re being disrespected or you feel like you’re not on the right end of the stick.
ANITA SEN: You definitely have to learn how to advocate for yourself. I think it’s always helpful to try to start stuff off by asking for a meeting to talk about something, and then thinking about what your end goal in the situation is. Do you want to stay at this job? Do you feel like something could change in this job? And how you approach things is pretty important.
ELAINY MATA: Yeah. Something that I was taught here is, first of all, this is hard, but to also think, “Oh, what else is true,” when you’re mad or upset or…
ANITA SEN: Oh, definitely.
ELAINY MATA: And that’s hard because you’re thinking about a perspective that isn’t yours, which is hard.
ANITA SEN: Right. But it’s also its intention. I think when we react to something, we’re assuming intention. Going back to you got to be able to communicate. You got to ask questions. How many times did you hear, “You can ask me the same question 50 times?”
ELAINY MATA: I know. I know.
ANITA SEN: I’d rather you ask me the same question question 50 times, then do it incorrectly.
ELAINY MATA: And do it wrong. Yeah. Especially with the printer. I survived.
ANITA SEN: You survived. You did. You did. And I learned a lot from you too. That was great. Which is as it should be.
ELAINY MATA: To wrap it up, we are communicating, documenting and advocating.
ANITA SEN: And advocating. Yeah. Learning how to advocate. Calmly.
ELAINY MATA: Calmly. Practicing. We’re still practicing. I’m still practicing.
ANITA SEN: I’m still practicing that as well. Believe me.
ELAINY MATA: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
ANITA SEN: You’re very welcome.
ELAINY MATA: Bye.
ANITA SEN: All right, talk soon. Bye.
ELAINY MATA: Before we wrap up, I do want to make an important point. Sometimes the situation with a bad boss escalates beyond what you can handle on your own. And if that’s the case, the advice in this episode definitely won’t be enough. You may need to go to HR. We didn’t talk about that today because really, we could make a whole episode about how and when to go to HR, and maybe we will, but we did put some links to HBR articles about HR in our show notes to help you get started. Thank you again to our guests, Robyn L. Garrett, and Anita Sen, and to our listeners who shared their bad boss stories. Thank you. Please keep sending us your stories and questions about work. Bonus points if it’s an audio file, we might even use it in the episode. Our email is email@example.com. If you liked what you heard, follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, leave us a review and tell us what you think of the show. Then, send the episode to your group chat, Slack, or wherever you talk about work. Did you know that Harvard Business Review has more podcasts to help you manage your business and your career? Find them at hbr.org/podcasts, or search HBR, wherever you listen. This episode was produced by Hannah Bates, Anne Saini, and me, Elainy Mata. Our editor is Mary Dooe, and our engineer is Tina Tobey Mack. Supervising editors are Maureen Hoch and Paige Cohen. Ian Fox manages podcasts at HBR and our theme song was composed by Gras de Oliviera. Special thanks to Magdalene Johnson. And a shout out to our HBR colleagues who took the time to listen to an early version of this episode and share their feedback, Ritika Assudani, Dustin Brady, Hunter Chase, Samantha Clark, Paul Comeau, Vidhika Dsouza, Ambika Dubey, Amanda Garcia, Ramsey Khabbaz, Annabeth Lucas, Jhymon Moody, Cheyenne Patterson and Ivy Stafford. Thank you all for listening. I’ll meet you here next week.