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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Survive a Bad Day When You're the Boss

Bad days are equal opportunity employers. They don’t care if you’re the CEO or the newest junior accountant recruited straight from last spring’s graduating class—they can get anyone, at any time.

That said, when you’re the boss, the experience of suffering through a lousy day in the office is supersized. Bad days tend to be a bit more intense when you can’t just close your office door and ignore everyone. Plus, bosses are expected to be the adults in the room, to stay calm, act rationally, and never lose their temper—all of which are basically the opposite of what most of us would like to do when we’re having an epic fail of a day.

So, what’s a manager to do? Fortunately for you—and not so fortunately for me—I’ve had my share of bad days on the clock, and I’ve learned a few important lessons about making sure your day doesn’t go from bad to worse.

Don’t: Vent

It may sound counterintuitive to everything you’ve ever been taught about dealing with emotions, but when you’re the boss, sometimes you’ve got to just bottle up all those feelings and save them for a rainy day—or, better yet, happy hour with your non-work friends. A kvetching boss sends a dangerous message to the rest of the team—and believe me when I tell you that’s not the kind of message you want repeated around the water cooler.

Take one of my former bosses as an example. He had the unfortunate luck of having a bad day fairly often, and he made sure we all knew about it, every time. But while an unchecked venting session may have made him feel a tiny bit better at the time, his rage-fests soon became the norm for all of us, transforming the office into a non-stop bitching fest. Not at all professional, and certainly not productive.

While there may be times you need to get something off your chest, try to limit that venting to a carefully selected group of trusted colleagues or friends. You may be frustrated or upset, but as the saying goes, “Never let them see you sweat.” It’ll make for less bad days for you in the long run.

Do: Distract Yourself

And, by distract yourself, I mean watch cat videos. Or honey badgers, if you’re into that sort of thing. As a boss, you may think it would be untoward to be seen watching the latest viral Lil Bub, but trust me, getting caught cooing over Lil Bub is far better than blowing a gasket in front of your whole team.

For me, it was the honey badger that saved the day a few years back. I had just learned of a major mistake someone on my team had made, and my boss was coming in on his day off to discuss it with me. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I’d spilled coffee all over my shirt earlier that morning and got a speeding ticket on the way to work. As I was teetering on the precipice of what surely would’ve been an unforgettable breakdown, I remembered my friend, the honey badger, and promptly queued up the video. Within minutes, my angst and frustration had been replaced with uncontrollable laughter and levity. By the time my boss showed up, I’d regained my composure and was ready to face the music.

Keep an arsenal of laughter-inducing material readily bookmarked on your computer or phone, and don’t be afraid to use it when a bad day pays a visit to your cubicle. Ideally, before that 2 PM constructive criticism session with your problem employee.

Don’t: Overcompensate

One of the tricky things about being a leader is knowing how to react appropriately to any given office situation. After all, you’ve got people watching your every move. If you’re blasé about a project or task, your colleagues may get the impression you just don’t care—or worse, don’t know how to handle the issue. But, if you overreact and completely freak out, that’s not going to win you any leader of the year awards, either.

Take our commander in chief, for example. Everyone knows it’s cool to see the world’s most powerful leader having a little fun with his friends, taking selfies. But, there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, and a funeral for one of the world’s most respected activists probably isn’t one of those times.

Attending a very public service for such a somber occasion has to be at the top of the president’s list of bad day situations, but overcompensating—in either direction—will just make the situation worse. Find a middle ground between how you’d like to act (punching in your office wall) and the exact opposite (having a dance party on your desk), and chances are you’ll avoid embarrassing yourself in front of millions of people, especially your colleagues.

Do: Pack It Up

Sometimes, there’s nothing to do about a bad day other than surrender to it. So, if you’re in a position to throw in the towel for the day—and I’m talking only in the case of a real doozy—don’t be afraid to say uncle, and make a beeline home (or, er, to the nearest pub).

I opted for this after a particularly horrific day a few years back. I’d just found out our firm was about to be audited, and as a result, my upcoming vacation that I’d been planning for years had to be cancelled. Everyone was already stressed about the audit, and my added chagrin over my former vacation plans made for a dismal mood around the office. Not good for my colleagues, and definitely not helping me. So, I finished the urgent work I had for that day and made a swift exit as soon as possible. While my day didn’t necessarily get any better, at least I didn’t have to subject the entire office to my suffering. It was just what I needed to reset my attitude. When I arrived the next day, I surprised everyone with a smile—the bad day was officially over, and we all got back to work.

Obviously, you won’t always be able to pound pavement every time you’re having a lousy day, but if and when you can, do it. You’ll save yourself and your colleagues from a long, painful, awkward day of suffering. Not to mention allow yourself that much needed space to get refreshed and ready to start the next day off right.

While I can’t promise you’ll never have a bad day—in fact, I can promise you probably will—that doesn’t mean you have to add to the pain and suffering by exposing your frustrations to the entire office. Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll keep your bad days at bay.

Photo of man with umbrella courtesy of Shutterstock.