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What to do when your boss behaves badly

What to do when your boss behaves badly - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolWhen you’re faced with an uncivil boss or co-worker, what should you do?

Focus on yourself and your future.

When people mistreat you at work, you have to take control. You can do that by betting on yourself – not on your ability to change the offender or the organization where you work.

Don’t just survive – thrive.
The best response to feeling disrespected, my research shows, is to take steps to foster a sense of thriving – being energized and alive and feeling you are improving or growing. To reach this point, you need to stop replaying the rude encounter in your mind. Try to limit the time you allow yourself to feel the hurt, injustice or outrage that incivility often causes. Shift your mindset to fighting for your future.

In various studies conducted in more than a dozen organizations across a range of industries, I have found that people who experience this state of thriving are healthier, more resilient and more able to focus on their work. They have a personal reserve of vitality to draw on, which buffers them from distractions, stress and negativity.

Here’s how can you develop a sense of thriving.

Identify areas for growth and actively pursue development in those areas.
Pursue your education or develop a new skill. Investing in yourself is a surefire way to make you more resilient. Work closely with a mentor. Mentors can challenge you to ensure you don’t get stuck. They also can encourage you to focus on yourself and your future.

Manage your energy.
Sleep, exercise, good nutrition and stress-management help ward off the noxious effects of disrespect. Sleep is particularly important. Research shows that a lack of it increases your susceptibility to distraction and robs your self-control, reducing your ability to respond well to disrespect. Research has also shown that a lack of sleep makes you feel more threatened – even by weak stimuli – less trusting, more hostile and more aggressive.

People who exercise regularly are far better able to rebound following negative interactions. The more the exercise, the more you build up your cognitive potential and dump the junk that weighs you down.

Healthy eating also helps put you in tip-top form to respond well to disrespect. How well do you respond to a frustration when you’re famished?

Similarly, mindfulness – the shifting of your consciousness to process situations slowly and thoughtfully and respond with greater pre-meditation – can also help you manage disrespect well.

Find meaning or a sense of purpose in your work.
To the extent that you can, take steps to shape your job into something that carries even more significance for you.

Begin by reflecting on how you spend your time in the tasks, interactions and relationships at work. Then, follow these steps based on Amy Wrzesniewski’s work:

  • Optimize your current job by allocating time and energy differently to build a sense of control, positive identity and connection with others.
  • Adapt your work to capitalize on positive, energizing interactions.
  • Reorder tasks and interactions to feed yourself and your sense of meaning, allowing you to engage more at key points in your day.
  • Invest in your future by building a repertoire of skills or experiences that provide a path to more meaningful work.

Seek positive relationships. 
Positive relationships at and outside of work help you thrive. Research I conducted with Andrew Parker and Alexandra Gerbasi shows that “de-energizing” relationships – negative relationships that people find draining – have four to seven times greater impact on an employee’s sense of thriving than energizing, positive relationships do. To offset the effects of people who pull you down, surround yourself with a small group of energizers. Spend more time with those who lift you up!

Thrive outside the office. 
In studies with MBAs, executive MBAs and employees, I found a consistently strong correlation between thriving outside work and thriving at work. Thriving in non-work activities doubles an individual’s emotional reserves while instilling a sense of growth and learning. Think about what you can do outside of work that makes you happier – and do it.

If you feel held down, dig deep and face it with your best, strongest self. In extreme cases, you might consider a job change. But investing in developing yourself will pay off even if you leave for a more positive environment. Don’t let someone make you a smaller version of yourself.

By Christine Porath (PhD ’01), author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace” (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) and professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business