A coachee recently expressed concern about their current situation with their boss. “I have a lousy boss trying to bring me down with their endless criticism, controlling and micromanaging my and my team’s work. They talk about empowering leadership, and they seem to know the concepts, but they don’t walk the talk. I understand that I’m letting the situation get to me, but sometimes it’s difficult not to feel discouraged when it’s an everyday situation. I have tried the obvious things, gave them feedback, and stuck up for my team, but things haven’t changed. I am tired of rallying the troops and making excuses for them. I am at a loss. Should I stay or go; what do you suggest? “
I empathise with this coachee's difficult situation, I have been in similar circumstances myself, and I'm sure others have as well. A boss's behavior can have a significant impact on our productivity, performance, and well-being. It's so understandable for this coachee to feel lost and overwhelmed.
When clients approach me for coaching regarding a difficult boss, we usually discuss three potential outcomes:
- Staying and starting fresh
- Coping with the situation
All three outcomes are viable options, but it's essential to make the choice from a calm and rational state of mind. Making decisions based on frustration or desperation can lead to regret.
So, what can we do to get the best outcome?
Instead of getting into what the coachee should do, which would be a typical coaches approach, I first explore with them how our minds actually work. This is the ultimate leverage for our experience of life and therefore work; yet it’s often the most overlooked and misunderstood factor. The big misunderstanding is that the circumstances out there, in this case the lousy boss, are creating our experience. In fact, it’s the other way around. It’s our thinking about these circumstances that creates our experience, inside out. Or said another way: circumstances, people, and things cannot dictate how we feel without our thinking in the moment being included.
Let’s say that you have a strong negative reaction to your boss. If you don’t have some understanding how the mind is working at that moment, you might think, my boss is causing me to be unhappy and I have to get out of here and go work for someone else. It looks like you are a victim of your circumstance because you think it’s your boss that is causing your distress.
What if that's not how the mind works? What if our experience in this moment is coming from the thoughts and feelings we are having in this moment? Then we would see we are experiencing our thinking and not our boss. If this is true then it would be impossible for the boss to dictate how we feel without factoring the thoughts we are having about the boss. This is super empowering because we are now back in charge knowing these thoughts coming from us and we can chose to take take them seriously or not.
This message is at first reading is understandably, confusing. We have been accustomed to looking to our circumstances; our past, our “bad” or “good” bosses, friends, relatives, colleagues; our life situations; our popularity; our measurable successes -- any external things -- to explain our thoughts and feelings. Thus most people honestly feel, when they first hear this message, that it doesn't explain the power of their circumstances.
But lets take a moment to reflect. If we look very closely at real life, we begin to see that there is not a direct correlation between one’s circumstances and one’s experience. If I go to a movie with my friend, we will both watch the same movie, but each of us will have very different internal experiences. In this sense, I am really seeing a different movie, because of my thinking in that moment made up of my interpretations, conclusions, or judgments. My description of the movie will differ from my friend’s. Similarly if I think my boss is lousy I might go and talk to others to validate my concerns. But I find out they have a different experience of them, maybe they find them ok or just a bit frustrating, not as affected by them. Then we must conclude the only factor that can be at play for us to have a different experience of the same circumstance is our thinking and feelings in the moment about the boss.
With this understanding you grace yourself a better perspective and bit of space a chance to zoom out to see more of our reality. You become suspicious and curious about your perceptions at that moment. You can then ask yourself, am I seeing that person clearly? Is there something I'm missing? Also recognising the variability of your state of mind can help with perspective. For example if you are insecure or upset and you notice that you are feeling negative towards your boss, you might say to yourself, when I am insecure and upset, of course I’m going to see this person in a bad light. You realise that there is very little wisdom or perspective in those thoughts, and you back off from trusting and buying into them.
Now we have factored how our minds work to our situation, we can look at what can we do with the situation of a lousy boss? Let’s look at our three options again.
1. A fresh start is only one thought away – we can all have a fresh start when we see the role of thought in the moment
A fresh start is when we have a change of heart, or a new thought. Importantly a fresh start is not letting our boss off the hook, but ironically letting ourselves off the hook from the distressful thoughts and feelings we are holding onto about the boss.
We have all accumulated beliefs and ideas about what we want from a boss. When our boss fails to live up to this idea we might think, “She’s not a good leader, I don’t respect her, I don’t think I can work with someone with those values”. We focus on the differences in our values, personality, and style. Essentially, we are having judgmental and ego thinking about their behaviour. Judgement is a product of our thinking. It is created in the exact moment when we think something other than thought can make us feel a way we do, or do not, want to feel. When judgement is created, we inevitably feel insecure. We feel at odds with the world, and with whatever appears to be causing us to feel a way we do or do not want to feel. This feeling of insecurity leads to further unnecessary and reactive thinking and the feelings which that thinking brings.
When we are in a secure, non-judgmental state of mind it occurs to us to look for understanding our boss’s behaviour rather than judging it. We look for possibilities and new ways of seeing the situation. For example, we might see our difficult boss is micromanaging with a good intention. Their micromanagement could be about getting things done right and wanting quality work, so they jump in to “help”. Understanding comes from our curiosity and openness to the situation. It’s not letting our boss of the hook to see better what is going on for them, in fact it when we truly understand them it can change our perspective of them dramatically. The shift in our perspective from judgement to understanding provides us with the opportunity for a fresh start.
The really good news is we are designed to be secure, its our true nature. We only leave that space when we get into our heads and believe or identify with our habitual thoughts and get caught up in them. If we quiet our minds and relax into our true nature, dissolve our ego, then a fresh start is only a thought away.
2. Coping with resilience- we can be ok no matter what when we know we have a deeper intelligence to guide us
It could look like coping is a poor solution and one we fear will negatively impact our wellbeing. This is only true when we look at coping from a low state of mind instead of a resilient mind.
The truth is we misunderstand our resilience. Our thoughts, consumed by past regrets or future worries, act as a formidable barrier to our natural resilience. But the antidote is within reach, and it lies in the present moment. The instant we embrace the present, our worries and anxieties fade away, leaving us unburdened and free.
Again, we are naturally designed for a calm, secure state of mind no matter what situations we face. We intuitively know this, which is why we enjoy those times when we are in flow, in the zone, or in meditation free from thought.
Our natural resilient state of mind allows us to see all our life experiences are opportunities to learn. A difficult boss is one of life’s experiences. It’s an opportunity to learn more about us and grow our understanding of our inside out experience. My experiences with difficult bosses have been invaluable to my coaching as it has given me a huge insight into my own thought created reality and empathy for others going through similar experiences. Having these experiences has shown me how incredibly resilient I am. I am not saying these were easy experiences, far from it, but they were insightful.
3. Insightfully leaving – we can make big decisions when we can see the future without our worried thinking
It is true there are times when for the good for our wellbeing we may need to leave a difficult boss. To decide to move on is a decision that needs wisdom. I have called this “insightfully leaving”.
We tend to think about the future and worry. Will I find another job, will I get a good reference, will people think I have failed, will I think I have failed? When we are caught up this future thinking we cover up the possibility of what the future holds for us. We know we can’t predict the future, we can only take a step towards it and see what happens.
From a place of insight, we can expand our perspective beyond our current thinking. For instance this challenging boss experience may have transformed us in a way that gives us the confidence to consider leaving. This experience may even be nudging us towards a different path altogether. Rather than limiting ourselves to a binary choice of staying or leaving, we can open ourselves up to other possibilities and explore different options. This shift in perspective gives us hope and allows us to break away from a narrow focus on our current situation. The experience has given us wisdom and a clearer understanding of what truly matters to us. With this understanding, we can make decisions that align with our values. It's as if we have awakened to a new level of awareness about our circumstances, which enables us to see everything from a different perspective.
Again and again, in diverse settings, in organisations large and small, I have seen the remarkable resiliency, creativity and effectiveness of people who realise their own power to transcend the limitations of their previous thinking, to build relationships that are sustainable and productive regardless of situations that arise, to find certainty and faith in their own ability to know what to do, what to say, and how to proceed. So, when dealing with a difficult boss consider factoring how the mind actually works from the inside out from moment to moment. When we see that all our experience is created from our thoughts and feelings in the present moment, not from external circumstances like the lousy boss, we get a bigger perspective. By understanding this we can choose our response wisely, we can transform our experience of a lousy boss into a learning opportunity and a catalyst for personal growth.