How to Deal With an Asshole Boss
We have all had at least one.
Bill Lumbergh as The Boss in Office Space | Screencap via YouTube, art by Noel Ransome.
Dealing with a boss who seems to get some sort of sadistic pleasure out of making you miserable is basically a rite of passage. Or maybe it's not and I've just had a bad run.
I spent a few too many unfortunate years working food service, where I almost exclusively had bosses I couldn't get along with. In those situations, it was usually pretty obvious that my bosses hated being there as much as I did.
But even if you aren't being ordered to scrub the baseboards for sassing an overlord, the corporate world can be trying in other ways: say, that boss who measures your dedication by how willing you are to answer emails outside your working hours or by how many tasks you'll take on outside your job description.
New York Times best-selling author and Stanford University professor Robert I. Sutton is an expert on assholes, which he defines as "someone who leaves you feeling demeaned, de-energized, and disrespected." Recently, he published a book called The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt. (I am not as much of an expert, given that the only way I've coped with previous asshole bosses was quitting and later passive-aggressively mentioning how much they sucked in this very article.)
Since we must make money as participants trapped in this evil cycle called capitalism and in all likelihood will encounter an asshole boss or two along the way, here are some pro tips via Sutton to help you survive:
Know the asshole you're dealing with and the situation.
Do an analysis of both how much power you have over the situation and how much you're suffering. And, as Sutton phrases it, "know your asshole": "If you have a boss who is just dumping on you, insulting you, being disrespectful, in that situation," he recommends saying something to them. Or, if think that won't work, you could go over their head to HR or another authority figure.
Start sucking up.
"There's an argument that when people treat you like dirt, it's because they don't feel respected," Sutton says. "In those situations, treating them with kindness and respect and giving them compliments… is sometimes a good thing to do." Sutton says in the case of a power-hungry boss who treats you like dirt, this could be more of a defensive move—you might not make a friend.
"Sometimes you're just in a position where you realize you can't change the person," Sutton says. "Your job is to get through it."
Sutton dedicates part of his most recent book to avoidance techniques. One route you can take is limiting your contact with the asshole boss as much as possible. Even just putting physical distance between you and the person can be powerful, he says. If you do have to meet IRL, do so sparingly and have as brief of contact as possible.
Get into a rhythm.
Another coveted avoidance technique: "Try to pace your interactions with them so that if it's over email—if they send [multiple] nasty emails—don't answer them right away," Sutton says. "Wait and send one polite, short one as opposed to getting into that cycle where you're getting madder and madder."
Protect your soul.
Sutton refers to what he calls "mind tricks that protect your soul": ways to look at a situation differently even if it doesn't change. This can mean shifting your mindset to seeing someone as a comical figure—you can laugh at their ridiculous behaviour in your mind or in private, creating emotional distance.
Fuck them, but be nice to them.
This tip comes courtesy of a coffee company Sutton uses as an example in his book. Though the tip was meant as a tool for coping with asshole customers, it can apply to dealing with an asshole boss too.
"When [the baristas] got treated like dirt, they took a collective pride in not sinking to the level of the asshole they were serving," he says.
Form a coalition.
Sometimes you know that something you're getting slack for at work from an asshole boss is the result of a broken system. It's a phenomenon I've experienced at previous jobs, when a boss blames underlings for a systemic problem that they don't have much control over.
Sutton has some advice for this kind of situation: "If just one person complains… It usually doesn't work," he says.
"When people fight back, bond together, and form a coalition, it gets harder and harder to push people around." Documenting and complaining as a collective group is more likely to affect change in your workplace.
"Take your time, document and bond together, and then bring the evidence to someone in authority," Sutton says.
Don't answer emails outside your working hours.
Unless it's an emergency or it's part of your job, of course.
Smartphones have made it so that some people, some asshole bosses included, expect responses from you at all hours. Just take the CEO of Barstool Sports, who said in a New York Times interview this year that she measures responsiveness of job candidates by messaging them at odd hours on the weekends.
Sutton recommends we make a collective agreement as a society to stop sending emails at odd hours. There's a shared responsibility here: If you start sending them past your working hours, people are going to come to expect you to reply to them when they do it.
Know when to quit, but don't be stupid about it.
"I'm a big believer in quitting," Sutton says. "If someone is hitting you with a hammer every day, you should leave the situation, I'm sorry."
Sometimes you should just suck it up, like if you're at a shitty internship. But, otherwise, Sutton says, consider: "Do you have other options? Are the other options that you have actually better?"
For readers who work in larger organizations, Sutton says, sometimes moving to another big organization isn't better. "Try to find another part of the same organization where there's known friendly people or groups," he recommends.
If you have other (potentially better) options and your job is making you sick, though, Sutton says: quit.
Sometimes the assholes are us.
"If everywhere you go there's assholes," Sutton says, "that might be a sign that you're treating everybody like dirt and they're just throwing it back at you."