Is It Better to Resign or to Figure Out What Your Touchy Boss Needs?

After months of working together, Steve really thought he and his boss, Mitch, had come to an understanding: Mitch would focus on strategy and marketing while Steve would handle day-to-day operations and virtually all communication with the team. 

But no matter what plans Steve proposed, Mitch approved, and Steve implemented, Mitch wouldn’t be satisfied. He would complain bitterly about things that weren’t due yet, and even worse, renege on their agreements by intervening directly with the team. He couldn’t seem to help himself. 

It was almost as if the more that got done, the more Mitch would notice whatever hadn’t been done yet, even though there was a schedule in place for doing it. Mitch would text Steve at all hours to list everything that was still undone—whether or not it was already planned—and gripe that the employees weren’t producing enough. Even worse, Mitch would accuse team members of shirking their responsibilities.

Steve was getting fed up with the situation and began feeling that he couldn’t—and shouldn’t have to—put up with Mitch’s behaviors anymore. Steve had been handling Mitch’s concerns as they were raised—changing schedules, coaching team members, and shifting procedures and techniques based on those concerns. But despite how well the team was working and the fact that people had stopped quitting, Mitch was no calmer, no more satisfied, and no more pleasant. Plus, he kept deflecting Steve’s concerns with tirades about his personal life and how hard everything was for him.

Consider the Source

You can address logical problems until the cows come home, but if the source of those problems is illogical, you need to address them in a different dimension—that is, if it’s even possible to address them at all. Mitch was full of misplaced pain and resentments; he felt burdened by being upset all the time but couldn’t see that he was the cause of his own distress. His victim stance was strengthened by his perception that his stress was part of his contribution to the business, even though his behaviors were actually disruptive. 

It’s always uncomfortable to deal with somebody who doesn’t deal well with themselves. That’s especially true of someone who isn’t interested in changing their behavior, and only cares about improving their own experience—which actually might be hard to achieve based on their personal travails and the exigencies of their business. And having your boss vent to you about their personal relationships, as Mitch frequently did with Steve, is particularly draining.

It can feel like a never-ending spiral of frustration to work for somebody with no sense of practical, good-enough solutions—especially someone who doesn’t want anyone on their team to appear better off than they are themselves, whether it’s to do with finances, status, or peace of mind. Mitch even seemed jealous of Steve for being able to leave the business behind at day’s end, while he believed he couldn’t because he owned it. 

Find an Alternative Stance

Steve and I reviewed his options. Over time, he had become quite skilled at presenting logical arguments, recapping previous agreements, emphasizing the value of the work that only Mitch could do, and highlighting how vital it was for Mitch to do that work and leave Steve to do the other work.

We found an additional stance for Steve to take: He could affirm Mitch’s feelings more, meanwhile trying to understand Mitch’s real priorities and ascertain if there were better ways to meet them. Sample language was: “I hear how frustrated you are. We accomplished the things we agreed to, so something else is upsetting you. Can you tell me about that?” Then Steve could discern whether Mitch’s concerns were business-focused, and therefore appropriate to engage with, or merely Mitch spiraling yet again about his many personal worries. 

Is It Ever Okay to Suggest Your Boss Needs Therapy?

Steve knew he couldn’t help Mitch resolve the personal frustrations that bled into work or change Mitch’s inaccurate judgments about other people or his need to intervene in dramatic and hurtful ways. So Steve asked me if it was appropriate to suggest that Mitch see a therapist. I noted that the offer wouldn’t necessarily help—even if Mitch wasn’t offended, he might not seek counseling, and even if he did, any change would likely be slow. But I told Steve that if he wanted to do it, he could acknowledge that he saw Mitch’s pain and discomfort and how much it affected him. Then Steve could explain that when he had experienced similar feelings himself, he had benefited from therapy. But then, I advised Steve, he should leave it alone. Rather than share details about his own circumstances, he should simply offer his observation and then move on to standard work topics.

We also discussed how Steve could self-manage every day so as not to be too disrupted and unsettled by Mitch, meanwhile still taking care of his people and keeping the business moving forward. But since Steve was a caring, compassionate person in what felt like a no-win situation, it was crucial for him to be kind and firm with himself: “Oh, I can see that I’m reacting to Mitch and I got caught up in his frenzy.” Steve could certainly feel sorry for Mitch, but he also needed to distance himself and recognize which parts of the situation were actually his to address. 

It was not Steve’s job to fix Mitch, his relationships, or his apparent inability to change—but if Mitch was unwilling to move in a better direction, then Steve would need to decide if this was the best place for him to direct his own talents and commitment.

Onward and upward—
LK

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