Few things are as demoralizing in the office as working for a sadist. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses how to use your Microsoft Office skills to blunt the impact of a terrible boss’s rage.
It’s perfectly normal to dislike your boss sometimes. Even the most compassionate and professional supervisor can, at times, be a bit of a pain – their primary function is to get you to do something that the company needs doing, but that you won’t do of your own accord. Messy things. Boring things. Whatever. That’s where a boss applies some pressure to get you off your duff and get moving. Just being told to work is enough negative input to inspire a little deserved resentment. It’s not, however, grounds to make you hate them.
Hate is an altogether different state of mind. True hate requires a deep reservoir of unrequited wrongs to fuel it. You can be furious with a boss over a dispute or a slight, but that anger usually fades not long after it first flares to life. Hate, though… hate requires extensive investment in suffering, emasculation, abuse, humiliation, and the utter absence of mutual respect. To really hate a boss, the guy or gal has to be such a rampaging jerk that nothing they say or do would motivate you in the slightest to stop loathing them.
Bob was hated. This wasn’t an exaggeration; Bob was universally, thoroughly, and in all ways despised. The man had proven over the course of his four years in the director’s suite that he nurtured an obscene lust for other people’s suffering. He tortured and bullied his staff for his own amusement. He’d already driven off five of his seven department heads, and wasn’t at all circumspect about the fact that he wanted the last two managers’ skulls as trophies for his mantle.
At the time, I was one of the last two managers that Bob had inherited from his predecessor. I knew exactly where I stood with the man, and felt nothing but contempt for him and for his abusive ways. On the other hand, I’d come to the company from the military, and therefore knew how to shut up and soldier on. That’s what allowed Bob and me to reach a fragile state of détente – he’d do something nasty to me, and I’d endure it without making a scene. I didn’t like him one bit, and I was trying like hell to find a job somewhere else, but I knew that I could outlast Bob. I’d endured worse.
Unfortunately for them, the newer managers that Bob had selected to replace his earlier victims lacked that grim stamina and it cost some of them dearly in stress and esteem. This story is about one such manager taking the full force of a Bob Rage™ on a frightfully dreary summer afternoon.
To set the scene: Bob, all of us managers and all of Bob’s key staff leads were trapped in his regular weekly staff meeting. We weren’t actually accomplishing anything; Bob’s meetings were long, drawn out affairs where no real information was exchanged. This particular meeting was one of the painfully long ones, because Bob was reviewing his cherished ‘metrics’ reports.
All year long, Bob had been on an arbitrary ‘quality’ kick: he insisted that his departments funnel reports up to him on the first day of each month, quantifying and graphing all sorts of meaningless data. We’d all waste an entire workday each month making PowerPoint slides that Bob might or might not brief selected up to the Top Men on Executive Row. We never knew which – if any – of our slides would get briefed, or what Bob would say about us to make us look bad to the Top Men. He had his own agenda. All we knew was that it typically involved getting other people outside of our division angry with us for things that we probably hadn’t done.
Anyway, there we were: about ninety minutes into an excruciating slog through the month’s slide show in a hot and sticky conference room. The HR people had just made it through their personnel actions reporting, and it was time for my IT department’s metrics. I was sitting at the far end of the conference table  with my back to everyone, watching the screen disinterestedly. I tersely summarized the report on help desk traffic, the slides on upcoming infrastructure projects, a request for more funding, and a financial accountability report. For each slide, I rattled off the minimum commentary necessary to establish the context for the bullet statements and moved on without waiting for questions. Then we reached the training requirements slide, and Bob went off on me explosively.
‘Wait a moment,’ Bob snapped. ‘What’s the percentage-complete of your hazardous workplace safety training?’
I paused, squinted at the one column on the bar graph that appeared lower than all of the others, and told Bob that we were about 60-something percent current in the safety course.
‘That’s UNACCEPTABLE!’ Bob shouted. ‘MY standard is that ALL departments will NEVER be less than 90 percent current on ALL required coursework! At all times!’
‘I’m aware of that,’ I said as laconically as I could. ‘I have a new batch of employees which is throwing my numbers off a bit. You know that my department does that safety course every December as a workgroup. I’ve already scheduled for all of us to complete our December training in December, as part of our December training.’
The personnel manager sitting opposite me got wide-eyed and stifled a gasp as if I’d said something blasphemous. I let my eyes un-focus on the screen, since I knew what was about to happen.
‘You will do NO SUCH THING!’ Bob roared. I could feel a fleck of his spittle hit the back of my head. ‘You will schedule and complete your safety training before the end of THIS MONTH!’
I shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘All right. We’ll do it this month instead. No problem.’
The room was dead silent for around 20 seconds, then Bob snapped at his AV girl that he was done reviewing my department’s ‘worthless’ slides and wanted to move on.
Around 20 minutes later, Charlie – the new rep from facilities – was on deck. Charlie was a good fellow for the most part, but he was inexperienced. He wasn’t young; just unfamiliar with management. He’d been promoted to a role a bit higher than he was probably ready for, and it showed. His slides were a disaster of scrambled tables, bad fonts, unreadable graph labels, and garbage data. He was also sweating heavily in the afternoon heat, which made him look a bit like a naughty schoolboy reporting to the headmaster’s office.
After four failed attempts to explain one perplexing graph, Bob snapped at Charlie: ‘What in the hell is THAT supposed to mean? Why don’t those numbers in the summery row correspond to the posted figures?’
Charlie whipped his gaze from angry Bob back to his awful slides, and stammered: ‘I think we… we might not have added up the… um… the right quantities, but we can…’
Bob didn’t let the man finish. He snarled: ‘This is TERRIBLE work, and I won’t tolerate it in MY division! Do you think I should show this slide to the CEO? Huh?’
‘Um, no sir,’ Charlie mumbled. His eyes darted to all of the other managers in terror.
‘You’re damned right I shouldn’t! This is utter garbage!’ Bob snapped. Charlie turned bright red.
Bob smiled, then harangued everyone in the conference room with a long b*****king about how stupid we all were, and how our performance failed to meet his generous standards. Once he finally ran out of invective, he haughtily ended the meeting and stormed out.
I never turned around to acknowledge him.
On the way back to my office, Charlie stopped me and apologized to me for ‘ruining’ the meeting for everyone. He was scarlet with embarrassment, and looked like Bob had just run over his dog in the car park. I told him to put it out of his mind; it didn’t matter.
Charlie blocked me for signalling the elevator and demanded to know how I’d managed to remain so calm while Bob was raging at me. I pulled Charlie over to a quiet corner of the lobby.
‘First things first,’ I told him. ‘’Understand that Bob is a bully at heart.’ I explained that Bob had always been a sadistic b*****d back when he was a line manager. Now that he occupied a director-level billet, he was free to toy with his subjects like a Medieval despot. More importantly for this discussion, though, was the fact that Bob was a fraud.
Charlie stared at me like I’d extruded a tentacle out of my ear. I sighed, and explained that Bob had always been a crap manager. He’d left every department that he’d headed in worse shape than it had been in when he’d been posted to it. He’d run out of useful expertise years ago, and was only occupying his current billet because the board of directors couldn’t be bothered to do away with him.  Bob was still young, telegenic, and energetic – but he was also significantly out of his depth. He was surrounded on all sides by better-educated, more experienced, and more competent department managers… People who threatened his power, because they were all smarter than he was.
That fear of being vulnerable, I said, combined alchemically with his desire to inflict suffering. Therefore, every time he assembled his management team, Bob was compelled to forcibly dominate one of us. He had to humiliate one of his direct reports, so that everyone else would stay terrified for another week. It was akin to kicking your dog every time you came home so that it learned to cower at the sight of you, even though it could rip your throat out.
I fancied that I could see the gears spinning as Charlie thought that over. ‘Is that why you’re not fazed at all by his screaming at us?’ he asked. I nodded. ‘So, what can I do about it to make him stop attacking me?’
‘You can’t,’ I said. ‘Today was your turn to get chewed on.’ Charlie looked crestfallen. I sighed.
‘What you can do,’ I said, ‘is what the rest of us old-timers do: add some tactical Bob-i-sabi to your reports.’
Charlie cocked his head and gawked at me, utterly lost.
‘The Japanese have a really neat aesthetic called “Wabi-sabi”,’ I said. ‘My wife picked us up a tea set when she visited Japan. The potter who made the set carved a single notch into the bottom of each cup – a deliberate imperfection introduced into the design. It’s supposed to make you stop and think about impermanence.’  Charlie nodded. He’d travel enough as a young buck to grok the concept.
‘Here in Bob’s domain, we have a comparable aesthetic practice: we know that Bob is compelled to try to dominate at least one of us at every meeting. If no one gives him a legitimate reason to attack, then he’ll simply invent a reason. No matter what, someone has to take a beating. Follow?’ Charlie nodded again, thinking about what he’d just witnessed. He’d noticed the one discordant bar on my training status graph.
‘So, we treat the inevitable tantrum as just another part of the meeting. We all make deliberate, minor errors in our reports each week – something to catch Bob’s eye – so that he’ll latch on to that little piece of meaningless stupidity and will then blow up about that, rather than about something that could really screw up our day-to-day operations.’
Charlie’s expression was a mix of shock, delight, and awe. ‘So, you’re all deliberately baiting him!’
I nodded. ‘Just enough to lance the boil of his rage. He gets to bark at one of us, and then feels better for the rest of the meeting. Then we all get on with things. A little mad, perhaps, but not substantively harmed.’
I felt a like one of the cryptic old sages from a classic Zed koan, because in that moment Our Charlie was enlightened. He went back to his building with a jaunty spring in his step, all of his recently-inflicted misery seemingly sloughed off of him like a discarded cape. I hoped that my message had taken hold.
Sure enough, Charlie had his act together at the next staff meeting. His reports were triple-checked, well-polished, and factually accurate… but one of his printed reports had a glaring formatting error on it. Bob pounced on the Bob-i-sabi element and gave Charlie a snide rebuke. Afterwards, Charlie hid the decoy memo in his briefcase and slid the ‘corrected’ copy into his stack of submissions. He slyly made eye contact with me across the table and winked. I waggled my eyebrows at him in approval.
After that, Charlie’s life with Bob got a bit easier. He never stopped hating the man, but he did manage to weather the damned fool’s outbursts with something close to equanimity. He got on with things, and left the stress behind at the conference room door each week.
The take-away lesson here is that some bosses simply can’t be rehabilitated. Some men and women truly deserve to be hated for their awful workplace behaviour. Some terrible bosses can be partially mitigated, though; once you figure out what makes them act the way they do, you can often engineer encounters in such a way as to deflect their bile safely away from you and the people that you’re responsible for. It’s difficult, sure, but it’s a better strategy than trying to fight a more powerful jack-wagon in the seat of his or her powerbase. Your goals should be to pre-empt, deflect, and manoeuvre. If you’re lucky, it’ll buy you time to escape with your sanity and your professional reputation intact.
 I’d adopted the habit of always taking the chair that was (a) farthest from Bob, and (b) closest to the door so that I could disappear immediately as soon as our beatings meetings were finished.
 The board did punt his worthless arse a few years later, after Bob tried one too many times to undermine the CEO’s agenda.
 Good old Wikipedia summarizes the concept thusly: ‘Wabi-sabi (侘寂?) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin?), specifically impermanence (無常 mujō?), the other two being suffering (苦 ku?) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空 kū?).’
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.