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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Are You in a Dysfunctional Relationship With Your Boss?

Given the amount of time most of us spend with our colleagues, it should be no surprise that we sometimes develop a familiar bond with them. Yet, with so much focus on “work-life balance,” we rarely make the connection that we’re in a relationship with our fellow workers—especially if that relationship is dysfunctional.

I’ll never forget the first time I realized I was one of these people. After growing up as a pretty normal, happy kid, the term “dysfunctional” seemed more Jerry Springer than Bob from accounting, but there I was, crying over my beer at happy hour, venting about my horrible boss and how I felt like I could never measure up to his expectations. It was at that moment that my drinking buddy stopped me to clarify: “Wait, are you talking about your family—or your boss?” Oof.

And, that’s when it dawned on me: I was in a dysfunctional relationship—with my boss. Sadly, that relationship was a bit too far gone to salvage, and I eventually moved on, but I did manage to learn a few key warning signs to help me spot any future drama.

Check in with yourself on these three categories, and you’ll spare yourself the happy hour waterworks by dealing with the situation like a professional, mature, adult.

Perpetual People Pleaser

Don’t get me wrong, aiming to please is a great quality, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to impress people, especially at work. But, there is a point at which your desire to please crosses a boundary from just doing a good job to doing a good job for someone else.

Here’s what I mean. Back when I was in my dysfunctional relationship with my boss, I was constantly doing my best to assure he was happy with my work. While on the surface, this seems completely natural—he was my boss, after all—my motivations weren’t really about the job, they were about my boss.

Somewhere along the way, I’d figured out that when he was pleased with my work, my quality of life in the office improved exponentially. For example, if I handled a situation well—usually one he didn’t want to deal with himself—he’d make a big show of it in the office or take me out to lunch or a drink. And, when I didn’t meet his expectations, all hell broke loose. I quickly learned that making him happy was the only way I could make it through the week.

The problem with this was that I wasn’t focusing on how to innovate or improve my role or my skills, but rather what mood my boss was in that particular day and how I could get on his good side. Years later, I realized how much time and energy I’d devoted to essentially keeping the dragon in his lair, rather than building valuable skills to round out my expertise.

The next time you notice that you’re going out of your way to impress someone—your boss or anyone else at work—take a moment to consider why you’re doing it. If you sense any motivation other than professionalism and pride in your work, it’s time to start thinking about your relationship with your co-worker, and maybe schedule a little family (ahem, professional) meeting.

The Rebel

Most of us probably had a rebellious streak at some point in our lives. And, most of us outgrew it, hopefully before graduating college. So, when I noticed I’d started rebelling against my new boss, I knew something was wrong.

My department had inherited a new head who, in my opinion, wasn’t even remotely qualified for the job. He, on the other hand, acted as if he’d been our manager for years. We began to butt heads at every turn, with neither giving an inch in compromise.

After an uncharacteristically public argument, I finally realized my boss and I were entrenched in a pretty dysfunctional relationship. Instead of utilizing my professional skills and expertise with negotiation, I regressed to my teenage self and basically threw a tantrum every time I disagreed with my boss. Not exactly the stuff promotions are made of.

Feeling the need to challenge a new boss is totally natural, and sometimes, even a valuable exercise for both you and your boss. But, when you find your reactions to your boss are coming from a strictly emotional place, without any basis in your professional development, it’s probably time you—and your boss—start acting like adults and work it out.

The Sufferer

No job—or boss—is perfect and happy 100% of the time. There will be times when things are tough, and you’ll feel like you’re really suffering. Totally normal. What’s not normal, however, is feeling like you’re suffering all the time—especially at the hands of your boss.

I witnessed this firsthand with one of my colleagues (we’ll call him Joe), who was in constant misery because of our boss. At first, Joe just seemed like a loyal worker. He did everything our boss asked of him, some of it not even work-related.

It wasn’t long before their relationship devolved from a manager and colleague to what looked more like a bully and his younger sibling. Our boss took advantage of Joe’s loyalty, ultimately making him suffer on a daily basis. The abuse ranged from reducing Joe (who was himself a senior-level manager) to our boss’ errand guy, asking him to pick up his car from the shop or pick up his dry cleaning, to outright verbal assaults, yelling at Joe for the tiniest of mistakes in front of the entire team. Clearly, not a productive working relationship, not to mention miserable for Joe.

Every job comes with its own unique set of challenges, and you’ll experience good days and bad. But, when the bad days start outnumbering the good, and the source of your suffering is coming from your manager, you and your boss probably have a few issues to iron out.

Working hard and having a hard time at work are two totally different things. A job should be challenging, and yes, sometimes it’s going to suck. But, you should never, ever, feel like you’re in the midst of a dysfunctional drama, worthy of daytime television. Recognize the warning signs, and address the situation early on, and you’ll feel more like you work in a professional setting and less like you’re on the set of Jerry Springer.

Photo of unhappy man courtesy of Shutterstock.