Written By Amanda Lim, Singapore
If you’ve clicked on this article because you have an impossible-to-please boss, my heart goes out to you. Truly. I know from personal experience the grief and emotional stress he or she can cause is no laughing matter, and may well plague you beyond your office hours and even waking moments.
If you need a mental picture of what my ex-boss is like, think of a fussy, demanding, insecure, and manipulative micro-manager. I know of ex-colleagues who have suffered from headaches, insomnia, and heart palpitation (just to name a few) as a result of working with her.
For me, it came in the form of a temporary memory blackout. I can still remember the incident vividly. My boss was upset with me that day and had sent a string of emails finding fault with—among other things—my grammar, punctuation, and speed of email replies. Emotionally drained and physically exhausted, I had left the office feeling like the most useless person on the planet.
Just when I thought I had the night to recuperate, I received a text message from her asking if I had checked some data. My blood froze as I realized I had not. In my panicked state, I realized I couldn’t recall the passcode to unlock my phone—despite having just used it a couple of minutes earlier.
Long story short, the four digits eventually did come to mind and I got into trouble the next day for not being on top of things (as I couldn’t recall the data she wanted). For the next couple of months, my boss continued to alternately criticize my work and give me the cold shoulder, regardless of what I did to try to appease her. Things took a turn for the better only when new colleagues joined the team and her attention shifted to new targets.
As I reflect on those six terrible months under this boss, here are some lessons I’ve learned. If you’re in a similar situation at the moment, I hope some of it can provide some encouragement and help.
1: Talk to your boss about it.
As far as possible, give your boss the benefit of doubt, especially if either one of you is new or things between the both of you weren’t this way before. Perhaps your boss is going through a rough time and is not aware of how his attitude is affecting the staff and work. Or maybe it could be due to a miscommunication or a mismatch of expectations.
Doing this, I believe, is one way to show respect and reverence for our bosses (1 Peter 2:17). When things started getting challenging at work, I remember having numerous sessions with my boss where I tried to articulate how I felt as well as see things from her perspective.
That said, this may not always change things, especially if your boss is not one to take feedback well or could never see himself as the problem—which brings me to my next point.
2: Realize that you can’t always “manage” your boss
Countless self-help articles will tell you that the trick is to manage your boss better. Find out what triggers your boss and make sure you don’t step on his or her toes. This advice may help turn the situation around in some instances. But if your boss is irrational, it’s not so clear-cut.
Before joining my department, I had heard about my boss’s reputation. My predecessor even pleaded with me not to take up the offer to work in the department, but I wasn’t convinced; I sincerely believed I could “change” my boss as long as I did my work well and proved my worth. And that seemed to be the case for the first six months, when I relished being one of her favorites in the team.
But after all her original targets quit, that’s when the tables turned. Though nothing had changed from my perspective, everything changed. Things I did that never used to bother her suddenly became heinous crimes, and not a day would go by without me apologizing profusely to her for something that I had done—or not done.
I lost the joy of work and dreaded going to office every morning. I beat myself up over the smallest mistakes and started to doubt myself and lose confidence in my work. When I realized there was nothing I could do within my power to turn my situation around, I turned to God.
3: Remember who’s really in control – God
I remember nights where I would curl up in bed, writing down my prayers and crying out to God to help me to do my work for Him and not for the approval of my boss (Col 3:23-24).
During one of those down moments, I wrote this in my journal:
“Lord, for the first time, I’m actually dreading going back to work. I didn’t think this would be a problem I would face, but since my boss’s recent comments about my work, I’ve been affected and I just dread the thought of receiving emails from her about the same issues again. God, you’ve taught me since young to trust you, honor you above all else, work heartily for you and not men – I pray that you will help me to let go of whatever bitterness and unhappiness I have towards her and just focus on you.”
Within just one week of penning that entry, God changed my perspective in the most unexpected way—a family tragedy struck and I had to be out of office for a few weeks. It snapped me out of my state of self-pity and helped to put everything in perspective. Suddenly, my boss’ approval didn’t seem that important anymore. Being recognized and affirmed for my abilities was also no longer something I craved for and fretted about.
All this time, I had been so self-absorbed in my own woes that I had lost sight of who was really in charge. I was reminded that God was my creator and provider. Just as He could give life and take it away, He could give me my boss and take her away as well—which He eventually did.
4: Find like-minded colleagues or friends who can support you.
But before that happened, God didn’t leave me in the lurch. I thank God for fellow Christian colleagues and churchmates who counselled me and reminded me of God’s sovereignty and love throughout this time, some of whom have become my closest friends as a result.
Don’t bottle up all your frustrations and grievances and suffer in silence. Find a mature and caring friend who can pray for you and counsel you; God has given us brothers and sisters in Christ who love us and will journey with us through difficult times (Proverbs 17:17). In time, you may be the one to provide support and counsel to another fellow believer in a similar situation.
5: Don’t gossip.
As you find a group of friends to support you on this journey, one of the biggest temptations is to turn the sharing of prayer requests into a gossiping session about your boss. I am guilty of this on so many occasions. The more wide-eyed stares and looks of disbelief I got from sharing about my boss, the more emboldened I became in my sharing. Soon, I found myself telling the same story to other friends that I would meet—sometimes adding in a few more details.
As I continued to meet up with ex-colleagues who had also suffered under her ill-treatment and we exchanged stories about her “abuse”, I found my description of my boss turning from bad to worse; in my mind, she had become a hideous monster, devoid of any hope.
But every time I came back from those gatherings, God would convict me of my poor testimony for Christ to both believers and non-believers. And over and over again, I would end up confessing my sin and asking God to forgive me for badmouthing her (Psalm 34:13).
This is one lesson I’m still learning today.
Today, I work for a boss who is the complete opposite. Aside from being a big-picture thinker, he’s patient, understanding, and gives each one of us room for trial and error. Had I not had the experience of working with my previous boss, I probably wouldn’t have realized how blessed I am to be working under my current boss.
My prayer is that you, too, will one day be able to look back on this episode and praise God for seeing you through.