When the Office Demon is Your Boss

Scary title, I know. It’s even scarier when it happens in real life.

Someone asked me recently why someone whose career centers on communications and content would be focusing on team development, operational efficiency and more specifically, workplace challenges like “how to deal with the office demon.” I find this a valid and insightful question. After all, what’s the connection?

As anyone who has worked in the corporate sector knows, what you do for your profession (meaning your core expertise, such as digital marketing platforms, client retention programs or writing for social media campaigns, etc.) will have little impact on the bottom line and your career if you cannot navigate the corporate environment. In a perfect world, organizational dysfunction—often referred to as “office politics”—would have no bearing on pure merit-based governance by senior leaders. We are not, however, in a perfect world. In my opinion, whenever two or more humans gather in a workplace setting, the potential for dysfunction is born.

We’ve all known office demons, and many of us have had to work alongside them and even feign compatibility when necessary. But what do you do when the resident problem happens to be your own boss?

The “Demon Boss” Defined

I fielded this question around to quite a few people I know and trust in order to tap into the creativity of those who have successfully survived reporting to the office demon. Before we get into their fantastic suggestions (some of which I wish that I, had been privy to sooner), here are some of the ways these fine contributors define or describe the demon boss:

  • “Doesn’t support you; throws you under the bus regularly”
  • “Lies as a matter of course”
  • “Takes credit for your wins”
  • “Doesn’t make a big deal about or even hides your wins from senior leaders”
  • “Never has your back”
  • “Keeps you in the dark about a lot”
  • “Hides information, or selectively keeps you in the loop, to control things”
  • “Uses control tactics, verbally abusive and bullies”
  • “Avoids contact with you; doesn’t make time to connect”

Coping Mechanisms

The harsh reality is this: If you find yourself reporting to the boss from Hell, it matters. It matters because a boss who is working against you can and usually will impact your income and your health, and these are just two major areas of vulnerability.

I would like to believe there is indeed a special place in Hades for such people, but since we’re still here on Earth, finding ways to navigate the nightmare is essential, at least until you get out from under the oppression of such a person.

The following tips each represent an amalgam of conversations, ideas and themes that emerged from my journey to find ways to cope with the unthinkable: a boss who is working against, not for, you.

1. Keep it strictly business. One particularly savvy professional I know offered this tip. Keep your interaction with your demon boss to a minimum and when you do communicate, keep it strictly about work. Don’t discuss anything personal. As one survivor of a horrible boss says, “The more they know about you, the stronger they feel and the more damage they can do.”

2. Document, document and then document some more. Nearly every respondent offered this tip. Keep records of conversations that went sideways, and list dates and descriptions of the demon’s bad behavior. If an act is egregious enough, send an email to document that it happened: “I know that when you threw me under the bus about Project X on May 1, at the 2pm meeting with John Doe, we both knew something went wrong. Would you like to share what your intent was around that unfortunate event?” It helps your case if the situation escalates, and, presents an action-oriented solution to overcome feelings of powerlessness.

3. Align with the demon boss’s peers. This tactic worked well for two contributors to this piece, and neither of them even did it deliberately. Colleague A’s leader was so hellbent on seeing him fail, he simply pretended she didn’t exist and relied on her peers for direction and coaching. This solved two problems. First, he actually needed direction, so he wisely obtained it where he could get it. Second, in doing that, he said nothing negative about his boss yet her peers began to wonder why her direct report was asking for coaching from everyone else on routine projects, etc.  Another benefit a different colleague derived from this approach—also accidentally—was that when she finally quit, it was hard for the demon boss to badmouth her; all the demon boss’s peers had grown to respect the colleague and lamented her departure.

4. Lead a project that is almost guaranteed to get attention or score a win for the organization. Nice work if you can get it, but actually, this suggestion is easier to do than it may seem. If you can get appointed to the project that no one wants, do it, and do it well. If you can innovate a solution that will score a win for the company—even a small one—do it. It’s hard to convince others that you are the problem when you’ve made something out of nothing and/or positively impacted the bottom line. It can neutralize the demon boss, even if just for a while.

5. Leave. This, of course, is the ultimate to-do for anyone reporting to the boss from Hell. Get out. Don’t waste time thinking about what could have been, or how unfair this was, or how insecure the boss from Hell actually is, or any number of truths that burn with frustration. Start looking and don’t rule out an internal transfer within your current employer’s organization to buy yourself some time (and sanity).

The upshot is this: If your boss is treating you poorly or employing any one of the losing strategies listed above (lying, throwing you under busses, etc.), then s/he is doing that for a reason. That reason, more often than not, is that they feel threatened. And they wouldn’t be threatened if they didn’t need you, if they didn’t feel insecure about their own competence, or if they didn’t know deep down that they couldn’t do the work at-hand without you. So, consider leaving a way to deprive them of the opportunity to profit from your talent. Period.

Leading others is a privilege that includes responsibility, yes, but also affords authority and influence. To abuse that power is a dark choice to make. You can turn the situation around, though, and find a better place to soar. Just make it quick.


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