Sunday, July 6, 2008

Warning! Have You Become a Toxic Sponge?

I once had a job where the boss was a toxic leader. You know the kind: arrogant, small-minded, belittling, etc. (In short, what Bob Sutton refers to as the "asshole boss.")

But no matter how miserable she made my life, no matter how unhappy she made the lives of everyone in the office, I kept a smile on my face.

"Good morning!" I would chirp at the beginning of every day to my co-workers. "How are you? Great day, isn't it?"

I would listen to others whine about how the boss was piling work on them, about how the boss yelled and humiliated them in front of others, about how the boss called them at home over the weekend and made them come into work for some bogus reason.

I would nod sympathetically, offer some encouraging words and then try to get my work done. But of course, the boss would get on my case about something, and I would try to just stay calm and not let her rattle me. I always thought, "Well, if she's yelling at me, then she's not yelling at so-and-so. I can take it."

By the end of the day, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I had spent eight hours or more reassuring co-workers, making them smile or laugh, trying to instill a sense of calm in a workplace that resembled an asylum. I did all this, of course, because I felt like I was the stronger one, that I was grace under pressure. I was made of sterner stuff than others, I thought. The truth was, I felt like a nice breeze would knock me over.

Reality was catching up with me, and the reality was this: I had become a toxic sponge.

I was taking on not only the unhappiness of my own situation, but that of others. I absorbed the mental and emotional blows of a workplace gone bad, trying to shore up each co-worker's battered self-esteem as well as my own.

I'm sure you can guess the outcome. I developed bad headaches and could hardly get out of bed in the morning. The things that used to give me pleasure no longer had much meaning. On Friday nights, I would often fall asleep soon after I got home from work and not wake until late the next morning. By Saturday afternoon, I began to get a sick feeling as I contemplated that Monday was only a day-and-a-half away. Forget the Sunday night blues. I was depressed by noon on Saturday.

Of course, I finally got out of the job and learned a valuable lesson. I could not take on the woes of everyone in a workplace. The reasons behind me becoming a toxic sponge were noble in the beginning, but to continue down that path was dumb. And yet, how could I not be there for the people who obviously needed me?

I see many people in this exact situation today. As companies cut jobs for the sixth straight month, it's rough out there. Despair, anger and even hopelessness have hit many workers, and so the toxic sponges are stepping up their efforts.

These sponges can be rank-and-file workers -- as I was -- or they may be in management. But few will acknowledge they have fallen into this role. They like to think of themselves as optimistic, or upbeat or supportive, or some other term besides toxic sponge. But the reality is that they are absorbing much of the stress in the workplace for others and they cannot keep it up.

So, as a recovered toxic sponge, I'd like to offer a bit of advice:

* Talk about it. Get a mentor, either professional or personal, and let them know what's going on. What you need is an acknowledgement that your efforts are appreciated, but that you're going to harm yourself if you don't get some distance. A mentor can help you see different ways to offer support without taking on the world's woes.

* Learn to say "no." Don't step in every time someone needs help. Saying your plate is full or that you're overloaded and simply can't help at this time is not a federal crime.

* Take a break. It's critical that you physically remove yourself from the situation. If you can't take a vacation, take several long weekends. It will help you regain your footing and help you focus on things that make you happy or help you relax.

* Focus on your health. You will be especially vulnerable to physical ailments if you are under intense emotional strain. The thing that saved me during my toxic sponge days is that I had to walk quite a ways to the bus and subway to get to and from work, which helped release some of the stress. Make sure you focus on exercise, eating right and getting enough rest.

Could you -- or someone you know -- be a toxic sponge?

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Understanding the Boss Will Make Your Life Easier

I'm always surprised by the number of people who complain they absolutely cannot get along with a boss. While there are some toxic bosses out there who should be sent to Asshole Island (Bob Sutton gets to pick the spot), the truth is that many employees could find it easier going at work if they just put some thought and effort into the boss/employee relationship. The boss, like anyone else, has joys and sorrows, and the sooner you figure them out, the better your work life will be.

One of the ways to do this is by putting yourself in the boss’s shoes. What are the duties and situations that set your boss off? These are the trigger points that you try to head off before they reach the boss’s desk. At the same time, what are the issues that the manager likes to get involved in? Those should also be your priorities. Because if the boss is happy, chances are the good times will roll for you, too.

Some other strategies to keep you on the sunny side of the boss:
• Managers don’t make mistakes. Or, rather, they make mistakes but don’t want anyone to know about it. Keep such news to yourself, and try and fix any errors quietly and discreetly.
• Never say “I don’t know.” Educate yourself about how your company functions, and who you can go to for answers on various subjects. If you don’t know, you can say to the boss “I know who to ask about that issue.”
• Be a good listener. Take notes if you have to when the boss is giving you an assignment. Most bosses won’t mind if you ask them to repeat something so that you clearly understand it.
• Be on top of key issues. Be aware of what is happening in your industry that will affect your boss’s work. Read industry periodicals, and keep your ears open at industry events such as conferences and trade shows. Keep an eye on what the competition is doing.
• Speak up. If you know of a way to streamline a process or cut expenses, tell your boss. Your good ideas reflect well on him and help him see you as a problem-solver.
• Be a cheerleader. If the boss or your department does good work, ask if you can send the information to an internal newsletter or an industry report. If it’s printed, make sure the boss’s boss gets a copy.
• Be trustworthy. Never repeat anything your boss tells you, and be discreet if you overhear something. If trust is developed with a boss, you may get a chance to hear inside information that will help your career and keep you an important part of your manager’s world.
• Don’t be a whiner. Most supervisor’s automatically shut out the sound of a whining voice. If you have a problem or issue, practice what you want to say so that it sounds logical, not lamebrained. Provide the boss with any date that supports your position. For example, if too many tasks are affecting the quality of your work, map out what happens for a few weeks so that you can present the evidence to the boss. This gives the supervisor hard facts when requesting more resources or personnel from her boss.
• Work on communicating. Much of the friction at work these days is caused by e-mail or voice mail overload, or reports or memos that don’t make sense. Always decide what is the best form of communicating your thoughts, not the easiest or fastest. That way, what you say or write will have impact, not just add to the clutter in your boss’s life.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Rate Your Boss

I once had a job where the boss was so toxic that I would feel my stomach start to roil as I entered the building where I worked. I couldn’t focus on anything that gave me pleasure – in the middle of a movie I would think about this boss and feel great anger. When I was having dinner with a friend I would think about my boss and feel so depressed I didn’t want to eat.

The job lasted 1 ½ years before I managed to get another one. By the time I left, I felt I had aged 20 years. I never laughed anymore, the joy had gone out of something I had always loved to do – write.

I remember after I turned in my resignation, my boss began interviewing people to replace me. One day, I stopped a job candidate outside the office and said, “Look, I don’t know you, but I feel I have to warn you. You don’t want to work here. The boss is really toxic – she does everything she can to demean people, and will never recognize or reward you for your contributions. We’ve had enormous turnover here, and the reason is because people are treated like dirt.”

The woman look at me and said, “Oh, I appreciate you telling me. But I think I can handle it.”

It was like watching someone jump in a shark tank and say, “Oh, I can survive just fine. It’s just YOU they didn’t like.”

I don’t know whatever happened to this woman, if she got the job or if she survived that boss. I just know that I wish someone had filled me in on the boss.

And that brings us to Asher Adelman, 33, a Californian currently living in Israel and founder of www.ebosswatch.com, which allows people to anonymously name their boss and then rate his or her performance based on a set number of questions. The overall rating is then available – for a fee – to users who want to check out a boss.

I recently asked Adelman, a former sales and marketing guy, a few questions about his Web site:

1. Am I to assume that you had an abusive boss sometime in your life?Is that who inspired you to set up this Web site?

The inspiration for eBossWatch was born out of a painful personal experience
several years ago working under what some former colleagues called "a reign
of terror" perpetuated by the company CEO. The frequent and ongoing abuses
consisted of loud and public humiliations of employees, name-calling laced
with vulgarity and the throwing of objects at employees. Before I started
working there, I had no idea about the true state of the work environment,
and I firmly believed that this was a respectable company that treated its
employees well. I was ultimately fired in less than two months after
confronting the CEO and complaining about his abusive behavior.

2. What's the purpose of the site? Who is it aimed at, specifically?
The mission of eBossWatch is to improve the lives of people by helping them
avoid hostile workplaces and abusive bosses. I see eBossWatch as being a
useful tool for any job applicant to have during their interview process to
help them evaluate the prospective employers. The applicants shouldn't be
the only ones being evaluated during the recruiting process.

3. What about the criticism that it's not really fair to "rate" a boss
like this...that anyone with a beef can give a boss a bad rating,without giving the boss a chance to respond?Is it really fair?


The idea behind eBossWatch is to use the ratings as a resource to spot any
warning signs about a potential employer so that the job candidate know to
do some additional due diligence into the work environment. If someone
seeking revenge gives a boss a bad (but inaccurate) rating, then the truth
will come out when the job candidate inquires further about the negative
rating or speaks with some current or former employees to find out what kind
of manager this person is.

The "Boss Report" survey results show both the combined evaluation score
averages as well as each individual rating by itself.

4. Do you think anyone will report "good" bosses,or is it much more likely this site will target only the bad bosses we hear so much about?

A significant amount of the evaluations that have been submitted have been
positive, so apparently the people lucky enough to be working for an
excellent boss recognize how fortunate they are and are interested in
showing their appreciation and support for their manager.

5. What's your goal for this Web site?

Our goal for eBossWatch is to make a difference in people's quality of life
by helping to spare them from the nightmare of working for an abusive boss.
Life is short, and it's unfortunate that so many people are stuck in hostile
work environments for months or even years.

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