Cary’s classic column from Thursday, Jan 26, 2012
She berates! She glares! She makes backhanded comments about your lunch selection! Shouldn’t I, uh, say something?
My boss is insane.
I know people say that a lot but I’m pretty sure I win. I recently started working for someone who I thought was an extravagant and eccentric designer, but instead I find out that she is an unprofessional, spoiled, dramatic, self-absorbed, abusive, venomous … the list goes on … nut job.
I am realizing that there is probably no changing this woman but maybe I can learn to work around her moods … OR at least keep the peace in the office. Every time she enters the room, gushing with feigned merriment, the atmosphere sours.
She is self-aggrandizing. “I have such great taste, I am so amazing, I do everything around here, I’m the only one who works, I’m so smart …” Literally, those phrases spew from her mouth daily — to an office of intelligent and hardworking people. She throws herself on the floor when she is unhappy about something — actually on the floor — and whines dramatically. She lashes out at the staff, then cries (tears) and apologizes. She berates people in the office or over the phone while prancing around the workplace like it is performance art. (Oh. I forgot to mention she is a failed dancer/actress.) She glares at the staff and makes backhanded comments about their outfits or their style, even their lunch selections.
Recently a woman quit, claiming a hostile work environment. The rate of turnover in this small company is unbelievable. No one stays for more than six months, and the most senior employee on the current staff is nearing five months. She seems perpetually displeased with everything and complains incessantly to everyone about anyone not in the room. It is really exhausting. Sometimes she talks to her cat about us in a silly playful voice, but with an evil, maniacal face. It’s really creepy.
And her friends just placate her. They come into the office regularly to baby her and coddle her in soothing voices, as if her behavior is even remotely appropriate. Yesterday she called in a Zoloft prescription on speaker phone and told us she only takes it when she has a bad day! WHAT?!? She should be on anti-psychotics!
I don’t even pretend that her behavior is acceptable and I think because of my disapproving tone I am now a target. I don’t want to encourage her unprofessional and abusive behavior so I am OVERLY professional when around her and I try to keep our interactions solely business related. But now everything I do is criticized (although, after her long, strange, silent pauses punctuated by yelling, it is usually agreed that my ideas/methods are best.)
I would love to cut and run but in this economy I’d like to be smart about my next move. I also really LOVE the rest of the staff!! I want to see THEM every day.
How can I deal with this? What is wrong with this woman?!?!?!
Help… I don’t know what to do with this crazy lady!
The Only Sane One Left
Dear Only Sane One,
Yep. Sounds like your boss is insane all right.
This is probably not be the last crazy person you will have to work for. So use this as a chance to practice and learn. Observe. Think like a psychiatrist. Is she crazy like this every day, or does she go through periods of relatively normal behavior? Do you notice extreme ups and downs? Will she go several days seeming very up, and then disappear from work, calling in sick or taking vacation?
Think like an anthropologist. Why is she the boss? What hidden social system is operating? Does her family own the company? If her family owned the company that might say something about kinship practices in the modern economy. Or if she herself owns it, it would say something about the magical powers we grant people who have money, that for some reason, probably having to do with our irrational belief systems, money buys people exemption from the consequences of acting crazy.
I’m just saying, use this rare chance to observe something strange and wondrous firsthand.
This is also an opportunity to learn something about yourself. How does your reaction to her differ from the reactions of your co-workers? If you had to work with her for the next five years, do you think you could do it? How? What would make it possible?
Also, to venture even farther afield, I suggest that you treat this rather fiction-like situation as though it were indeed a work of fiction. That is, look for the thematic patterns in it, the hidden subplots, the orderly magnetism of narrative justice, and the way in which her behavior mirrors behavior you have encountered before, which would raise the possibility that this is some kind of coded signal to you. I’m not saying it is; I’m just saying, to make it more interesting, imagine that it might be.
By the way, it’s interesting that she has been a dancer and actress. Maybe she would respond if you were to play against her, like a character. What if you were to do something really outrageous? What if you were to scold her like a little girl? I wonder what would happen. Would she slap you? Would she get violent? Might she pout? Would she fire you on the spot? That might be the best thing that could happen to you. Yes, I know the economy is not good. But it might not be good for a long time.
What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to spend it tiptoeing around vicious, crazy, immature egomaniacs? Why not call her on it?
As you can see, I’m not really giving you much practical help. All the employment gurus will say I’m harming your career prospects. But you’re an adult. You don’t have to do what I suggest. But think about it. What’s going on is a form of group madness.
There is something compelling about her, isn’t there? Be honest with yourself: Is she completely repugnant, or are there aspects of her that you find interesting? Does she have artistic talent? Is she sort of a crazy artist type, a diva? Or has she gotten where she is more by political talent, undermining those who would threaten her and befriending those who can help her? Or, as I say, did she come into the situation with resources of her own — family money or money of her own? What has she got? Is she beautiful, charming, smart, talented? What? Take notes. Film her. Study her. Years from now you may find it utterly amazing.
It’s really weird how there’ll be this one crazy person and no one person is powerful enough to stop the crazy person from being crazy. You’d think that “sanity” would prevail. But the crazy person has been granted magical powers. No one can touch her. Everyone is afraid of losing their jobs. Everyone is “being pragmatic,” when really, they are being damaged. And a pattern is being set. The group is failing to to take effective democratic action. What if you were in a lifeboat? What if she were a terrorist? What if she were abusing children? Where is the dividing line? What is this terrible passivity that settles over people in the presence of the deranged?
Don’t you wish, in situations like that, someone would be the hero? It might mean sacrificing a career. But is a career sacred? Is there nothing more important than one’s career prospects? Is self-esteem and dignity not more important than getting a bad reputation in an office that appears to have gone collectively mad?
I’m not suggesting you film her and put it on YouTube, though that would be amusing. I personally was very happy to be able to write the headline, “My boss throws herself on the floor when unhappy.” So there is that, too: How we turn mental illness into an occasion of glee. I know, it’s maybe not funny.
My main point is that this is not just about career. It is about moral choice. You have a chance to do something or do nothing. Years from now, if you play it safe, you may wonder why you didn’t act.