For My Friend With The Crazy Boss

Or should I say, series of crazy bosses.  Why, you wonder.  Why you?  What is wrong with you? You work well with plenty of other colleagues.  They seem to like you.  But the crazy bosses keep on coming.  There must be something wrong with you, because otherwise you just don't get it.

I don't think there's anything to "get". I've had my share of crazy bosses, in academia and in industry. For a long time I thought "why do I keep getting these crazy bosses? what is wrong with me?" There are just lots of wackaloon people. Many of them end up in boss positions. What you hear about on the news is some working class stiff who went shitznutz and came back to work with a gun and shot a bunch of people and everyone nods their heads and says "yeah, those poor folk and their guns. they are whack." You do not hear about the white collar, middle to upper middle class people who go shitznutz and instead of bringing a gun to work and shooting up a bunch of folks, just psychologically abuse the hell out of everyone under their control. Structurally, I think the way we work is designed to produce more of the latter than the former, but the former get airplay, and the latter are completely hidden from view, so that each person's encounter with Crazy Boss is experienced as a unique and strange experience that is felt as somehow reflecting on their personal worth, as a personal failing, not as something the system was almost guaranteed to cough up for them sooner or later.

15 responses so far

  • Tracey S. says:

    I have to agree with you there. Also, most organizations are designed to reward people who work crazy hours and have a complete lack of proportion and work-life balance. These people get a lot done, but also have personality problems and stress that they take out on the underlings.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Do you mean, besides the fact that:
    * Sociopaths are better at self-promotion than others,
    * Many (most?) organizations identify abusive individuals as "forceful leaders."
    * People who like power are more likely to seek it,
    * People promote those like them -- including "control freaks."

  • Big Blue says:

    I have actually seen more senior managers deliberately select a shitznutz individual to manage a group they dislike for whatever reason. They rationalize that the job is crummy and only the shitznutz who cannot readily leave for a job elsewhere due to their nuttiness, would be able to stay in the position for more than 20 minutes. Sometimes they rationalize that the shitznutz individual will destroy the group so thoroughly that it will be almost like a layoff in cost-savings, and in the short term it sorta is, if the group really has been dead weight--it's a convenient way to destroy managers of the empire-building variety. But you have to not mind collateral damage on the company in general.

    At the moment the shitznuttery where I work is mainly in a group whose function the very senior management wishes to send overseas: They are required by state law and a tax-abatement deal to have a certain number of jobs in the state, but it's very expensive to keep them here. So they brought in a shitznutter to manage the function, and now people are quitting in droves in addition to the officially laid-off numbers. They are down to about 1/2 the original staffing level for that function, but since they have posted job openings for the people who quit, they still qualify for the tax abatement. See how that works? No severance payouts, staffing significantly reduced, tax abatement remains in place, overseas group "temporarily" picking up the slack, and empire busted! Win-win-win!

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    We had a Chair who was became angry fairly frequently; justified anger in many instances. I observed that people evolved methods of dealing with his anger, and his anger became less and less effective as a negotiation tool as time went on. When I became chair, I decided I would become angry no more than once a year, and I would never become angry with a student or faculty member. In fact, I became angry only once during my three year term. I, without raising my voice, left a Graduate School functionary, who had been abusing students, white and shaking. I was congratulated by my Dean and a fellow Chair who witnessed the incident. It was an interesting experience, I felt like I was a spectator cheering myself on.

  • rknop says:

    I want to avoid being a boss because I'm convinced that I will probably become shitznutz if I become one. The evidence seems to be that the statistical probability of becoming shitznutz when you're a boss is pretty damn high.

  • Liz says:

    This American Life devoted a whole show to the rise and fall of the tyrannical head of the Schenectady school system's maintenance department. I hope he's an outlier, because the story is terrifying.

    There are mechanisms in place that should prevent abusive bullies from becoming supervisors in the first place, or at least address the problem once it becomes clear that a manager is abusing his or her supervisees. But in this case, the mechanisms failed for many years.

  • msphd says:

    This post and the comments were oddly comforting to me. I have had almost exclusively crazy bosses. I couldn't figure out if it was science (selection pressure?), or me (am I just replicating my family life by choosing crazy bosses who remind me of my crazy parents?) and/or sexism (would this be happening if I were a guy?).

    But most of the time I feel like I'm the only person who has had this problem, so therefore one has to conclude that I'm not supposed to be a scientist. Right?

    Because it's irrelevant like I like science and I'm good at it, if I couldn't choose the right mentors/bosses and navigate the highest possible concentration of toxic bosses long enough to survive.

  • FrauTech says:

    I do think there's a certain attitude that inspires these kinds of crazy bosses. Like having a backbone and sharing your opinion occasionally or having a tendency to defend yourself. Not my direct boss, but somebody in my chain of command has a tendency to chew people out for perceived failures no matter how old. And he definitely sets up subordinates to fail so that he can have a fall guy (or gal as the case may be).

    That's where I think the difference comes in in getting along with colleagues versus these bosses. Your colleagues expect there will be some discussion and some ways where you share your own experiences and technical knowledge. Some of the worst bosses I have known really expect the relationship to change once they get promoted. They want you to really display some deference and to sit there quietly when they blame you for things that are not always your fault.

    Things I've also noticed is a manager has to learn to really lower their ethical standards. You have to be willing to take credit (implicitly usually) for others work and sometimes fudge things to get it through in a way a line employee does not have to. The more you are willing to drop your standards the more you can move up. This does not always directly equate to poor treatment of your employees (sometimes bosses use these lack of ethics for the power of good not evil in taking care of their people) but often I think it does.

    • Zuska says:

      This makes me sad. A GOOD manager would not lower their ethical standards, would give credit to the people she/he is managing, and would count on moving up based on the success of the people she/he was managing. One of the really good managers I had sent me for training, and when I left the place of employment not too long after the training was done, said to me that her philosophy was that you hired good people, you gave them opportunities to do good work, you gave them training to be better at their jobs whenever you could, and you just had to assume that some of the best of them would move on to other opportunities, and you just hoped you'd have the chance to hire them back someday.

      The most craptastic manager I ever had eventually saw his entire kingdom dismantled. Then he went on somewhere else to be a craptastic manager in a new place, sadly.

  • JustaTech says:

    I think the sciences (really, most technical fields) could really, really benefit from mandatory management training. So many people in science/tech get promoted because they're good at what they do, not because they're necessarily any good at people. Managing people isn't easy or obvious, and most people aren't good at it. Classes might help.

    Then again, just last week my boss couldn't recognize his own handwriting, insisting that he hadn't told me to do *non-reversible action*. I was slightly frightened for him.

    • Aaron says:

      I don't think this will help. I handle professional development for our college and we offer management training of all sorts, from "organizational" to "leadership." Almost all of it is designed by my supervisor or people as crazy as he is. It is things like "How to Deal Effectively with Insubordinate Behavior," or "How to Build an Effective Team," and never, "How to Search Yourself for Signs of Abusive and Micromanaging Tendencies."

      Sadly, the paradigm is to reward authoritarian aggression and to punish passivity of any type. When I first came to where I work my boss tried to "mentor" me; his central theme was "Nice guys don't make it. Eventually you'll learn." He has fired co-workers for being "too helpful." And he is recognized as a model of strong leadership... ALL our management training goes through him for final approval. None of which is helped by an evaluation system that asks supervisors to evaluate subordinates and never the reverse... not that I would feel I could fill out such an evaluation honestly even if it existed.

  • Before I was in science I had crazy bosses. I am fortunate that the two bosses I've had within science have, at the very least, not been crazy. I really don't think my experience is the norm as just yesterday a friend who works down the street was telling me about how their boss likes to kick trash cans around the lab when results aren't as expected.
    Also, I agree with JustaTech. A lack of any management experience or training is partly to blame for so many PIs being horrible bosses. However, many business people take management classes and there seems to be no shortage of asshole bosses in that sector, so maybe a lack of training is only one aspect of the problem. For now, I guess I can just thank my lucky stars I don't work for an ogre.

  • Like having a backbone and sharing your opinion occasionally or having a tendency to defend yourself.

    Goode managers *wante* to be tolde when they're fulle of shitte. When new people join my labbe, as part of our first-day orientation, I telle them that it is a non-negotiable requirement thatte they telle me when I am talking out my asse.

  • Meg Thornton says:

    [TW: mention of suicide, suicide planning]

    I once quit a job because my boss had a tendency toward playing entirely too many mind games. She was manipulative, and extremely nasty in the way she played things out - to the point where she recommended I go in for counselling because I wasn't coping with her shit, and then would immediately call me into a meeting after a counselling session to start undoing any good work which was done then.

    This was the boss who got me the closest I'd ever been to seriously committing suicide - I can remember sitting in our kitchen one night, holding a carving knife, in hysterical tears because I couldn't bring myself to slit my wrists. I actually figured out how I was going to kill myself - go to several different GPs, get various prescriptions for sleeping tablets, wash them all down with a bottle of vodka on a night when I was alone in the house. By the time anyone got home, I should be safely dead, and safely away from all the pain and damage this woman was causing me.

    As you might have guessed, I didn't go through with the plan. Instead, I went to the first doctor's appointment (at a clinic close to my place of work, during my lunch break) and as I was heading back to work, my self-preservation instincts spoke up and pointed out there was another option - I could just quit the job. Which I did, post-haste. Gave my six weeks notice, and I was the hell out of there at high speed.

    I went back to the same employer several years later (the Australian Social Security administration agency) and discovered this supervisor was still hanging around the office. She'd managed to work her way up to office manager, while I was working technical support over the other side of the country. I didn't mention anything about it to the person who called me about the problem this ex-boss was having with her accounts, just fixed the problem. I figured being more professional than this woman had ever managed was revenge enough.

    • blue e says:

      TW for thoughts of self harm.
      I read your post when it first went up, and I just wanted to say - I feel you. When I was in a job with a particularly bad boss, it put me in a pretty bad place. For me, my thoughts weren't suicidal, but I was contemplating hurting myself. I fantasized about stepping out in front of a car, of being injured enough that I wouldn't have to go in to work, being hospitalized for a week or so, just to have a break from the stress. I think back and wonder why I stayed in that job for so long, and a lot of it has to do with feeling like I needed to overcome this - that everyone has bad bosses, that the job itself was one I liked, and I just needed to learn to deal with it. One thing I learned - if the boss is that bad, just get out, because it's not likely to get better.