Three horrible bosses, and how they made me stronger
In the movie Horrible Bosses, the three bosses are characterised as The Psycho, The Maneater and The Tool. As bad as they sound, I’ve had worse. Three in particular stand out. I’m going to call them Cruel Boss, Angry Boss and Scaredycat Boss.
None of my horrible bosses were good bosses by any stretch. Yet years down the track, I feel like thanking them. That’s not to say I was happy working for them. I was miserable, and that misery often followed me home.
But through pain comes resilience. Through resilience comes strength. Through strength comes resolve. And through resolve comes the determination never to be the sort of person who abuses power relationships in the workplace.
Cruel Boss was a real bastard. Today, he’s a very rich bastard. So much for karma. Mind you, Cruel Boss ended up living on a really busy street, so hopefully the traffic keeps him awake at night. I know his conscience doesn’t.
Cruel Boss had the delightful habit of never, ever praising your work, but always pointing out your inadequacies and errors. In fact, he didn’t just point them out. He belittled you for them. In front of the whole office.
Then late in the day, when you were working unpaid overtime, he’d say “this better be done by tomorrow!”. He might have said thanks for sticking around, or highlighted something half decent you’d done. But no. The term “constructive criticism” just wasn’t in his phrase book.
You might wonder what on earth I learned from this creep. Well, I learned how I wouldn’t treat people in the future. More importantly, I was big enough to go home and ask myself if he was angry at me for good reasons.
And you know what? He was. Look, the guy was a jerk, but he had a few valid points. I was a bit full of myself in that workplace. I was young and overconfident, and I thought I knew it all. Seems Gen Y is not the only generation to have had this trait.
Point is, when I stopped thinking I knew it all, and started doing things his way, to the letter, beautiful things happened. I actually did the job better. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but it worked. Cruel Boss had methods which were actually worth following. Many objectionable people do.
Angry Boss was different. I actually liked Angry Boss, but oh boy, did the guy have a temper. Admittedly, we worked in an incredibly volatile industry where huge sums of money changed hands in an instant. That’d make anyone edgy. But this guy’s temper was way over the top.
From the minute we staff arrived at work to the moment we left, Angry Boss would bellow. Sometimes he yelled at us for our failings, perceived or real. Other times he just yelled about his wife, or the government, and we were the unfortunates who happened to be in the way.
When the anger was directed at you, Angry Boss would make you feel both useless and unloveable. He could make you dread coming to work, and render you so fearful of doing the wrong thing that you totally lost your nerve. When you were in that state, you inevitably made mistakes. Then of course, you got yelled at all the louder.
But Angry Boss had a couple of graces. For one thing, he was generous with his knowledge. Even on busy days, he would explain tricky concepts, and bring you into his secretive world. At least when you then copped his wrath, you understood why you were copping it.
Angry Boss also gave praise when it was deserved. That only happened occasionally, but when the praise came, you knew he meant it. Several times he took me aside and said “This is what I expect from you, you used your knowledge and your intuition well today, and that’s why you’re well paid”.
We were well paid too. Angry Boss’s industry was largely unregulated, which meant he could pay us what we liked. But he chose to pay us well, and that made us want to succeed, despite the fury.
The lesson here is not as simple as “suck it up if the money’s right”. Because that’d be a short track to depression for any of us.
The lesson is to understand that bosses have stresses. And to go home at night knowing that if you’ve applied yourself, and done your best, then whatever happens at work will wash over you. And that’s how it was. I’ve never been yelled at so much and not felt in the least emotionally scarred.
Angry Boss also helped my decision-making skills immeasurably. Like I said, his industry was volatile. It’s a tough world out there in any industry. You’ve got to be quick and smart to succeed. You simply will not learn that lesson at a love-in.
Scaredycat boss was a timid sort of fellow, who was a little bewildered to find himself promoted to the big chair when an experienced boss suddenly moved elsewhere.
Scaredycat boss took the business we worked in and toned-down everything about it that was cutting edge. Ironically, he had a strong and fertile creative streak, but his safety-first instincts over-rode his creativity every time.
Our workplace culture had been one where we dared each other to do bold things. We needed someone to increase the stakes, but Scaredycat Boss was the exact opposite.
What did I learn from him? Easy. Have a crack. Never, ever be scared of ideas or change. I mean, I knew this instinctively anyway, but it was amazing to be in a workplace where the dynamic of conservatism vs adventurousness played out so dramatically.
That’s not to say adventurousness is always the answer. There are of course numerous workplaces where conservatism should and does rule.
But a good boss should be smart enough to recognise which ethos fits where. Good bosses should be smart enough to know a lot of stuff. But you know what? When they don’t, you can either get bitter or get smart.
Or you can get out. Knowing when to walk is the most valuable lesson of all.
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