10 Commandments for Learning Through Adversity


When Your Boss is One Tough ***

Your Jewish Fairy Godmother’s 10 Commandments for

Learning Through Adversity


Everyone’s had a least one: the kind of nightmare boss that makes the sadistic drill instructor in some war movie seem like a kindly old grandmother. The kind of S** or B**** that makes you want to flee to the nearest corner bar and tank up, and then go home and vent for several hours.


Good news: you’re not alone. Even better news: Like cod liver oil or public speaking, this is an experience that’s not only good for you but going to improve you in ways you would never predict. Not saying it’s going to be fun and games along the way. Almost for sure guaranteeing that it won’t be. But the commandments below will help you minimize the pain and optimize the experience.


Commandment Number1: Sign up or get out.

You know the movie where they lead the convicted guy out of the courtroom in handcuffs, and he has this bleak look of imminent terror in his eyes as he shuffles to his doom? Handy tip: never look like that when you come into the office. If you really cannot imagine yourself working for this person another minute longer than you have to, work on your resume and devote every waking minute you can to getting a different job. But while you’re still there, follow the rest of the commandments.


Commandment Number 2: Take the loyalty oath.

You don’t have to love your *** Boss, but you have to accept his/her authority and leadership.  Nothing’s harder to deal with in a workplace than divided loyalties. While you’re in the job, you need to be on the team. Not half-heartedly, but with conviction and purpose. You need to be willing to make your boss look good, and make yourself look good in the process. Don’t go blabbing about his/her foibles and don’t do anything to undercut the success of your working group. As long as you are part of this team you are going to have to wear its colors. You can send out as many resumes as you want on your own time, but 8-5 M-F you are a devoted member of Team Tough.


Commandment Number 3: Cultivate respect.

Unless you work for an organization riddled with corruption or stupidity, there’s reasons (whether they be good, bad, silly, incomprehensible, nepotism, blackmail, or something like perceived merit, but very real) why your boss is your boss. S/he got promoted for achievement or potential that someone yet higher on the food chain than you are counting on to make the company money and/or do good deeds. Figure out what traits make your boss valuable in the eyes of the bossier bosses, and decide to appreciate them, perhaps even mimic them. Show your respect in how you speak and how you act, both directly to your boss and when you speak about him/her to others in the organization.


Commandment Number 4: Work hard, very hard.

A hard boss can be a good boss. A hard boss can also provide you an opportunity to show what an excellent employee you are. Anyone can skate under a lax or uncaring supervisor. But to shine under a tough boss will earn you the approval and respect of anyone who notices. And I can assure you that people do. Anyone in the working group will know what you’re facing and anyone outside it will be thanking their stars every day that they aren’t in the same boat. You may not know that folks in Human Resources watch this sort of thing, but they do Every organization has its own character and if you can demonstrate yours it will be to your great credit.


Commandment Number 5: Ask your boss to mentor you.

Take your finger out of your throat. Flattery is a wonderful lubricant. Make it work for you. There’s nothing more disarming than a person suggesting that you are a good role model or worth learning from. You may want to give your tongue a good cleansing scrape later, but if you can say something like the following to your boss, you may shift the dynamic from something bad to something better, or even to something good: “I know you’re a tough boss, but I want you to help make me the best employee I can become.” Then, no matter what the requirements, do your best to meet them.


Commandment Number 6: Learn, learn, learn.

No matter how tough your boss is, s/he has something to teach you. What got your boss the job that tells you what to do? Is it smarts, effort, persistence, or wily politics? Study your boss’s habits and see what you can learn about what your company values. Ask questions about how and why certain things are done as they are. Become a student of success and you will attract attention and kudos, perhaps from people even more important than your immediate supervisor. Remember, your goal is to get a promotion out of your current situation, so keep your eyes and ears open for chances to learn and to shine.


Commandment Number 6: Set goals and make them happen.

Nothing distracts from pain better than goal orientation and rewards for meeting them. You can use the goals your boss/mentor sets and/or set them for yourself. But be sure they are documented both before and after you meet them. When you have a review or evaluation, ask what would make you more of a success. Set standards and timelines, and identify short and long run rewards for yourself. When you’ve proven that you’re as good as your word, set an external goal and communicate it to your boss. As in, If I accomplish x, y, z could that merit me a raise? It raises the ante but will keep you focused.


Commandment Number 8: Keep your big mouth shut.

Like side-seat driving and Monday-morning quarterbacking, complaining about a tough boss is one of our favorite pastimes. It’s a way to vent the annoyance and frustration that builds up from feeling like you have no voice and that someone else has extraordinary and inappropriate power over you. You may desperately want to tell the tale of the latest abuse you’ve endured, in part to distress and in part for the need for raw sympathy. But remember that every story you tell has a life of its own, in the retelling by the listener who may not have your career goals in the center of their competitive bulls-eye. What your boss hears you have said may not be the truth and could come back to bite you somewhere tender.


Commandment Number 9: Network with your peers.

This may seem like a contradiction to Commandment number 8 but it is not. The truth is that on any given day any boss is a tough boss or a bad boss or an annoying boss. We all need to let off steam and we all need to know that everyone faces the same dilemmas. The trick is to be able to complain about the circumstances without personalizing it to the boss. If you can learn to do that you’ll be able to connect with others who are now lateral to you who might: get a promotion sooner and hire you away, be a better fit and want to swap places (note, also risky), or who might have networks in places they cannot move to but might be good for you.


Commandment Number 10: Take mental health breaks.

Most jobs have requisite break times for staff.  But I’m talking about actual unplugging from the 24/7 culture cultivated by tough bosses that assumes the boss has a higher place in our lives that family, health, or even God. Make sure you get downtime on weekends and on actual vacations. Even if it is a complete lie, say you’re going to be backpacking, sailing, or otherwise out of cell range. Make sure you have all your chores done before you leave the office and keep your files well documented. Because if something completely explodes when you do not answer you will certainly get the blame. But if you can keep things wired tight you should be able to unwire yourself enough to come in Mondays feeling optimistic and challenged, instead of angry and resentful.


One final note: It really is okay to have a beer, and to vent, and to find non-lethal ways of stress reduction. But remember never ever to let any of your frustration leak into your office. Everything you say will live on in someone’s memory and you do not want to become the target of an angry boss who can send you packing.


Look on this period the way you would boot camp. It’s a chance to develop some muscles that will serve you well when you land in easier places, and help you shine among colleagues who haven’t had the chance to learn climbing up these same tough hills. You may not believe it now, but some day you may even thank your tough boss for the chance to toughen up yourself.