Monsters, narcissists, gas lighters, sadists.
The worst bosses come as all manner of monstrosity.
Sometimes their evil is disguised to everyone else.
Sometimes they are transparently terrible.
To be clear, I’m not talking about a demanding boss, some harsh feedback, or a little micromanagement. Today we’re talking about the worst of the worst.
We’re talking about monsters.
I’ve worked for two monsters in my career, and it is a lonely, painful, anxiety-ridden life. It can change you if you’re not careful.
I feel lucky to have faced my monsters and survived, so I can share my secrets with you.
If your boss is a monster, you’ll want to keep reading.
Nobody starts their career planning to become a monster boss. They don’t set out to make lives miserable and dole out pain like candy. It just doesn’t happen that way. It happens organically – a witch’s brew of insecurities, ambitions, fears, and abuse – stewing for many years. Monster bosses are brewed, not born.
I have two firsthand experiences working for monsters. I’ve also watched several others from a safe distance. Monster bosses come in a variety of forms, but there are few common types that stand out to me.
This one doesn’t sound nearly as scary as it is. When you read “narcissist” it’s easy to gloss over with a little nod but no real fear. We toss this term around a little too freely in my opinion, and you only come to realize that when you’ve worked for an actual narcissist. These monsters are driven only by their own self-interest and self-supporting propaganda. They literally do not care about right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies. They hold zero empathy for team members and co-workers. There is no concern for others at all beyond how they might immediately help prop up their own self-interested charade. To work for a narcissist is as soul-rotting as it is career limiting because none of the work you do is real. It has no value aside from serving as a hollow fuel to run the leader’s personal promotion campaign.
Another monster that holds no regard for truth or fact. Worse than a narcissist, who doesn’t care about you at all, a gaslighter cares enough to control your mind and emotions. Gaslighting is another term we use a bit too liberally and might not fully appreciate until we’ve faced the monster directly. The gaslighter lies with shameless ease. Facts, data, logic – none of it matters to a gaslighter. A gaslighting boss runs a non-stop campaign to marginalize you by distorting reality and playing an unfair game. They are immune to truth bombs and will just pile lies on top of each other. When your boss is that comfortable with lying, committed to propagating the lies, and determined to hurt you, it can feel completely hopeless. It is easy to lose confidence in your skill and judgement if you’re around it for too long.
On the surface, this monster appears to be the scariest, but it’s probably the easiest to manage. It doesn’t wear a disguise like the narcissist or the gaslighter, the sadist proudly wears his monster costume to work every day. He takes pleasure in inflicting pain, particularly on the most vulnerable targets. A sadistic boss redirects their own pain and insecurity onto you – it’s classic bullying behavior. It can be extremely painful to experience on a daily basis, and it can compound to make you lose confidence in yourself.
My goal with today’s blog is not to analyze why these monsters exist, it’s to give you the tools to survive if you find yourself stuck working for one. And as much as it would be easy for me to recommend you just get up and find a new job with a kinder boss, I know that’s just not realistic – at least not in the short term. With that said, I do think you should have a medium-term plan that frees you from a monster because if you stay too long, it will do damage. None of us are immune. But in the immediate term, you need a set of tools to survive while working for a monster.
1. Keep your distance – don’t try to charm a monster
Real monsters are immune to charm. You can’t win them over. It’s tempting to think you can make things better by forging a deeper personal connection or finding common ground. But that’s not how monsters work. You can’t win because they don’t want you to win. In fact, they will change the rules of the game to make sure you lose. Remember, we can’t expect to change a monster – that’s a fool’s errand. We’re not going to continue working for a monster in the long term, we just need to survive until we can make a smart career move from a position of strength.
My advice when working for a monster is to keep your distance and keep your interactions clinical and factual. Send an agenda, outline, and supporting data ahead of every meeting, and send a follow-up immediately after the meeting ends. Try your best not to get trapped into impromptu calls and hallway conversations. Keep your interactions structured, documented, and planned. It is rare, even for a monster, to criticize team members for being too organized, and it will make the lying more difficult.
2. Protect your soul – don’t offer your emotions to a monster
It gets easier to work for a monster once you’ve come to terms with the hard truth of your situation. Once you’ve accepted you’re dealing with a true monster, it is much easier to shield your emotions from their manipulation and abuse. It’s only when a monster is still partially in disguise that they can hurt you. Earlier in my career, I struggled because I cared what the monster thought of me. Our conversations weighed on me. I assumed I was the problem, or that I was missing something, or that things could get better. That caused me a lot of unnecessary pain.
My advice when working for a monster is to call it what it is. Be honest with yourself about the situation you’re in and the optimal strategy you must take to get out of it. In my case, it was a simple acknowledgement that I was working for a monster, I was not going to try change them or endear myself to them or hope things would get better. Instead, I was going to take steps to protect myself in the short term until I could make a career change from a position of strength.
3. Fight smart – use the monster’s weakness to your advantage
The monster’s weakness is his uncontrollable self-interest. Ultimately this is what fuels the narcissists, gaslighters, sadists and all other manner of monster. Their self-interest is so strong it allows them to lie and cheat with ease, but it also makes them vulnerable. Monster bosses tend to be afraid of sunlight and public exposure. It’s much harder for a monster to operate in front of an audience. There are too many people to hear the lies, too many eyes to witness the abuse. So, they tend to be on their best behavior in public settings and save the evil until they’re in private. This is your best weapon.
My advice when working for a monster is to minimize the frequency of meetings and maximize the number of supportive people you bring to each meeting. It’s not always possible to make this happen but you can drum up reasons to expand your meetings if you’re creative. If you have a regular update meeting with your monster boss, consider combining it with one of your peers in a connected function. Combining the two updates will save your boss time, and it will protect both you and your peer from gaslighting and abuse. The same technique can be used for major decision-making meetings, under the guise of ensuring alignment across functions.
I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed this blog but don’t need the advice urgently. Working for a monster is miserable, and it is a battle you can’t really win. What you can do, is protect your soul and survive long enough so you can make a move from a position of strength and get your career and happiness back on track.