Workplace Doctor: find some courage and set boundaries with tyrannical boss
This may sound extreme but how does one go about dealing with a borderline sociopath boss? There’s massive commotion in the company, staff are all tied up in knots, and I can’t speak to anyone for fear of retribution. I am trying to keep my cool but my life simply feels like a prison right now. What do you suggest I do to both keep my sanity and my dignity, and hopefully my source of income too.
Dear TJ, The first thing I’m reflecting upon right now is that you must have a large need for the income this job is providing, as life in a prison is certainly not the ideal career path nor anyone’s goal in the corporate world. I will continue to answer your letter on this assumption, however underlying everything I say is the concept of self-worth. Just like a bank account, when the funds or the self-worth is in the red or hits the tipping point, a change of course needs to be adopted.
I define a working relationship as an equal exchange between two parties in the interest of a common goal. There is nothing in this definition that stipulates that one will or should have power over the other or that inequity is to reign superior. When the two parties are human beings, there’s an additional unwritten expectation of respect.
It’s time to set boundaries, however boundaries that are set but not communicated are simply unset boundaries. Boundaries can be set according to time, approach, effort, values along with many others yet need to fit within the scope of the job description that you accepted at the commencement of employment.
Once these are set, it’s time to communicate them. In a prior life of employment, I had a tyrant as a leader for many years. This individual continued pushing and pushing until one day I snapped, and responded with my honest and very open opinion of the situation, indeed in a confrontational way. I must admit bringing emotions into any communication is most certainly not ideal yet on this occasion it seemed to be a language that the individual understood.
I am not here to recommend that course of action yet it is indeed only one example of setting and communication boundaries. One thing that it taught me was the power of a question and the benefits of involving the other in the decision. In the heat of the moment, not only did I state my opinion but I also provided two options and asked for the choice they would take.
Is there an official channel for you to use that will facilitate five minutes of time with the boss, and then simply once in, ask one well-defined, thought-out question, with the intent to facilitate a respectful conversation about boundaries, expectations and what matters most? However, this should only be done if you are prepared for the consequences that may emerge if he tips over the edge.
When in that face to face meeting, be sure to only speak your facts and feelings and not those of others, as you most certainly don’t wish to come across as ganging up on him. Another factor to consider is how much credibility do you have banked currently in his eyes? I had plenty for my situation, and without that, I again would likely have restrained. However, an opportunity to ask a question, without emotion, is definitely a fair request in any modern-day workplace.
So TJ, to me it looks like you have but two choices - either the request for question or discussion time to paint boundaries, or to persevere in silence and allow him to have control over your life. So is there really a choice here after all?
Take two teaspoons of courage, mix with self-respect and define those boundaries sooner rather than later. One day in prison is one day too many.
Debbie Nicol, the managing director of Dubai-based business en motion, is a consultant on leadership and organisational development, strategic change and corporate culture. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for the Workplace Doctor’s advice on your challenges, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague