How I Learned To Handle A Toxic (And Insanely Competitive) Boss


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Jenny Maenpaa44
“Do you think people here like you?” was not a question I was expecting to answer in my performance review. 
I stuttered that a coworker had invited me to a party at her home just a few days prior, so I thought so. Without acknowledging my response, my boss then began listing the ways in which I had annoyed her in the last 6 months. One such offense included chiming in on a joke that others were making; my boss didn’t feel I had earned the familiarity yet. Okay, I thought, fair enough. 
Another included mentioning that a dirty smoothie straw had been left on the conference room table for days, which had apparently been her doing. Again, I apologized, now very unsure of where this conversation was going. 
Next, she informed me that when I didn’t like something, it showed on my face, and that I needed to just plaster a smile on. I wondered if she would have said that to a man. Finally, after enumerating all the ways in which I was thoughtless and brash, my boss dramatically told me that she would have to put me on a 3-month probation to see if I could learn to work within the company culture
As a type A overachiever, I had never been professionally disciplined in my life, let alone threatened with termination. I gulped, trying to quiet the pounding heartbeat I was sure she could hear, and I affixed a smile on my face. “Absolutely,” I said. “I hear what you’re saying and I will definitely make those changes.” I returned to my desk and immediately conferred with my work wife, who had been at the company for a year longer than I had. She shook her head and sighed. “Yeah, she doesn’t like strong women she thinks are after her job.” 

Hold up, what?! What year was this??

The more I reflected on it, the truth of what my coworker had said sunk in. All of the criticisms my boss had leveled at me were personality-based and nothing she had said was performance-based. How was I supposed to change my personality? Furthermore, she could have addressed any one of those perceived slights in the moment, without the formality of a review. 
Some of the interactions she had identified were months-old. Was she just perseverating on them all this time?! After giving myself permission to feel righteous indignation, I began to process the situation as a whole. I thought about it some more and decided to treat it exactly like a true performance review: set goals, create a timeline, identify action steps, and get to work.
I knew that withdrawing completely would backfire; my boss wouldn’t see it as following her advice but rather trying to punish her in some way.
I came up with a plan to remove my emotions from the situation and treat her concerns as neutral performance metrics. I continued to smile and be friendly whenever I saw her. I asked about her family just often enough that it didn’t seem pandering. I carefully considered which jokes to join in on and which ones to busy myself during. 

I could feel her watching me like a hawk to see if I was going to confirm her suspicions that I didn’t “fit.” I wouldn’t let her win. 

My work had never slacked, so it wasn’t as though I needed to step up my productivity or efficiency. I knew that at the end of the day, if she wanted to fire me, she would find a reason, but I certainly wouldn’t give her any ammunition. I discussed my self-made development plan with my intermediary boss. He uncomfortably confirmed that he had known the conversation was coming and did not intervene to support me in changing my behaviors beforehand. I noted internally that he could not be trusted as an ally and externally nodded and asked for his support in keeping me accountable on my progress.
Six weeks later, my boss casually tossed out that I wasn’t on probation anymore. No official meeting, no conversation, just a decision made by her that I could now be kept in line. I learned that as long as I worked for someone else, I had to be conscious of my ego and my pride. 

I could easily have stayed angry and let my resentment at her need to be the alpha female in our office drive me to quit. 

I could have fought back through Human Resources and demanded formality and clear structures, which would have been well within my rights. Instead, I let myself feel all of those emotions for a finite amount of time, and then I made a plan. 
I chose to lose the battle so I could win the war and keep my job, as well as maintain an overall positive work environment. I never trusted her again, nor my intermediary boss who had let me be blindsided. I had needed to learn to play the game and focus on my own goals and needs, as well as those of my clients. 
In the end, I learned a valuable lesson that I have taken with me to every job since: just because someone is in a position of authority does not mean they are necessarily interested in developing you as an employee. Too many people are driven by their own egos and insecurities. Leadership skills must be learned, and it was up to me to develop them in myself.
Jenny is the founder of Forward in Heels Executive Coaching, which empowers badass women who want to excel at what they do, stand tall, and own their worth so they can light up the world. As a licensed psychotherapist as well as certified executive leadership coach, Jenny has been helping women make bold, lasting changes in their lives for over a decade.