Like it or not, dealing with bosses is never easy, and it’s not going to get any easier, even from the safety of your home, but, hey, you coped then, you can cope now.
You might be adept at spotting a bad boss in the office from a few metres away. But what does a bad boss look like during lockdown while working from home (WFH)? Can you spot your bad boss remotely, that is, from their email, or on a pixelated Zoom conference call? Has your once-decent boss turned into a bad boss now that you are WFH? Can you see him or her in the profiles below?
Chanelle calls you a lot. I mean, a lot. She “just wants you to know she’s here for you”. In reality, she’s checking that you’re not in the garden or zoned out in front of the latest Netflix series. Chanelle’s insecurity about how to manage you remotely manifests in distrust and micromanagement.
Sam’s first concern is power. Instead of being a servant leader, leading you based on your needs, Sam serves his own ego first. He schedules virtual meetings that are twice as long and twice as frequent as they were at the office. Why? To remind you that he’s still in charge. Since your team is socially distant now, he needs to orchestrate a show of authority as a proxy for true leadership.
Pumelo truly wants to be supportive of you during this time and keeps asking you how she can help (“Bless her heart”, as Americans would facetiously say). However, she is incapable of making a decision that would actually help you. In this remote management world, leadership paralyses her. “I’ll see”, she says. Or, “I’ll ask...” Instead, in times of crises, we all need strong, decisive leadership.
A well-established management theory says that in a high-quality boss-follower relationship, the boss tends to rely on a follower who is most like him or her as the “go-to person”, that is, the person who can get things done. In this new, remote world of work, it may be even easier for Ned to go to his favourites first. So, because Ned knows you or likes you best, he’s constantly calling you first. You take care of it. Again. But, what about your co-workers? Out-of-sight Sue and out-of-mind Mandy? Are they even busy these days?
Yesterday Marius forwarded you a letter from your CEO praising your ability to work from home to keep your company operating. But today he’s telling you he won’t pay for your data usage and “jokes” that you’re probably downloading movies. If emails could physically steam, your laptop would be hidden under a white-hot cloud. Does he view you as a high performer or a pathetic waste of company resources? And why does this seem to vary day-to-day?
So what should we do about these remote bad bosses? Evidence shows that one of our best sources of social support in times like these are co-workers — the people who “see the same crazy” as you do in your workplace. Perhaps one of the best ways to deal with remote bad bosses is to have fun profiling him or her, then share your snarky assessment with a trusted co-worker.
Venting with work friends can relieve stress and reduce burnout as well as legitimise our feelings and attitudes (“Maybe I’m not crazy after all!”). As for Not-Again Ned, if he is leaning too hard on you as his lead dog or maybe just his favourite dog, it is up to you to speak up. Remind him how many existing assignments are on your desk — or on your dining room table, as the case may be— right now. Lead dogs can become overburdened and run the risk of burning out, especially when working remotely. If you’re not Ned’s go-to you may wonder if you’ve been forgotten, making you seem expendable in uncertain times. The danger here is that when hard choices about workforce planning are made, you may find yourself on the retrenchment list.
When it comes to Moody Marius, the research is clear: The worst bosses are not the ones who are consistently negative but instead the ones who are unpredictable. As with child abuse, the worst distress comes from parents who one day hit and the next day hug. Marius will keep you on high alert and your emotional distress high at the same time. In this case, subtle reminders of yesterday’s message (“Wow! I’m surprised at this. It seemed like you were pleased with my work yesterday. Am I wrong?”), or pushing him to be more explicit in his accusations (“Wait. Just so I’m clear, are you worried I’m misusing company resources?”), might call Marius out on his behaviour. But confronting a bad boss, even from the safety of your own home, brings with it serious risks. During these uncertain times, keeping your job, or at least staying on the boss’s good side, may be the safer idea.
Indeed, these are unprecedented times. You can probably cut your remote boss (bad or good) a little slack. Some of our bosses are making brand new, difficult choices to keep our companies, our organisations and our country moving forward. And remember, their kids scream for snacks during conference calls, too. Their dogs whine for suddenly forbidden walks. You want your boss to understand you and your needs but empathy works both ways.
Also remember, back in the halcyon days of face-to-face interactions, your boss’ directives were accompanied by helpful body language and insightful facial expressions. Remote communication can be strained and misunderstandings abound, especially when we are all getting used to new technology on-the-fly. The onus is now not only on our bosses, but also ourselves, to explain, clarify and perhaps even finesse our messages.
Professor Jenny M Hoobler is a Professor of Human Resource Management and Doctoral Programmes manager in the Department of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria. Her work on abusive supervision, that is, bad bosses, has been published in academic journals for the past two decades.
This article was first published in the Sunday Times on 26 April 2020.