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How to Cope With an Anxiety-Provoking Boss

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I’ve encountered all kinds of bosses in my career—introverts and extroverts, friendly ones and short-tempered ones, laid-back types and control freaks. But the five worst years of my life involved working for two bosses who were insecure.

Each one systematically degraded the team by hiring weak people they thought they could control. Each treated my success as a plot to embarrass (or even overthrow) them. Eventually, they had me questioning whether it was me who wasn’t cut out for the organization.

Indeed, when I survey employees in my work as an organizational psychologist, they say that even a consistently mean boss is preferable to the wild mood swings of an insecure one. Catch your insecure boss on a good day when he’s leading from a feeling of strength, and you are lulled into a false sense of security. Then, wham—a stray comment from the CEO taps into his anxiety, and suddenly he’s defensive, vindictive, and petty.

The worst part about working for an insecure boss is that you never know what to expect. I learned how to survive the hard way. But if you’re in a similar position, you may not have to: Here are the things you can do to cope.

Repeat after me: “It’s not me, it’s you!”

If you have an insecure boss, you’re going to get yelled at, set straight, and micromanaged—seemingly at random and without provocation. Sadly, this is especially likely if you are competent. When you question yourself and wonder what you could possibly be doing wrong, don’t exclude the possibility that the only thing you’re doing wrong is threatening your boss with your strong performance.

Keeping up your self-esteem when it’s under attack is critical. So let me repeat: Never let an insecure boss rock your belief in yourself. Instead, find another person on your team (ideally one who has seen the boss’s bad behavior firsthand) who can give you a reality check about your performance.

Make your boss feel included

If you think your boss may feel threatened by you, find ways to let her feel that she’s in control. When you have success, make her a part of it. Try statements such as, “I really owe it to you; our conversation last week got me on the right track!” If possible, make those comments publicly.

If you spot a problem that’s affecting your team, defer to your boss’s power and position. “I’m worried about how things are deteriorating with the finance team. How are you thinking about our relationship with them?” “What do you see as the biggest opportunities to change our workflow for the better?” Build from your boss’s ideas and quote them liberally: “As Ruth said, we need to start with a new process.”

Find other outlets

You are full of ideas about how to change things for the better. Sadly, taking those ideas to your insecure boss is going to go badly. Insecure bosses like the status quo, because they have found ways to survive in the current model. There’s no guarantee that they’ll survive if the system changes.

But don’t be discouraged. Instead, find sponsors in the organization who will include you in other forums and projects—even something as simple as a social or charity committee. Most leaders are thrilled to have volunteers, and you can channel your energy elsewhere.

Build your own reputation

The truth is that building relationships with leaders outside your team isn’t just about getting things done. Your insecure boss may be downplaying your strengths in talent reviews in an attempt to solidify their own position. High-stakes decisions involving raises and promotions may hang in the balance. That’s why it’s important for you to develop separate relationships with leaders elsewhere in the organization. Keep it casual and don’t make a fuss—otherwise, your popularity outside the team will feel threatening to your boss.

Become indispensable

The best leverage you have over an insecure boss is to make yourself indispensable to the organization. Work quietly and diligently to make the team and the organization successful. Your boss will know he’s safer with you than without you—and that matters to someone who’s insecure. As long as you’re willing to share the spotlight and reflect some of your success on him, your job will be unpleasant but safe.

Working for an insecure boss involves navigating landmines daily. You have to maintain your self-esteem in the face of continual attempts to undermine it. At the same time, you have to feed the insatiable beast that is your boss’s fragile ego. If it’s possible to look for a job elsewhere, I’d recommend doing so. But in the meantime, these techniques should calm things down and make your insecure boss bearable until your transfer—or theirs—comes through.

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