My Type-A Boss Is Killing Us Both

Last Updated Apr 13, 2009 2:27 PM EDT

Dear Stanley,
I'll try not to vent all over you. I work for one of the companies that writes academic papers, and my boss is a compulsively driven type A+++. He crashes in on me at all hours of the day and night with assignments; schedules work so that it spills over into my "day off" (my fault for putting up with it); etc. It's hell working for him. He's got high blood pressure and has had several mini-strokes and he's still at it, so he's never going to change. I would like to keep the job, so I'm trying to change my mindset. How can I learn to love my job and a man whose management skills are nil, whose expectations are unrealistic and whose pay scale is laughable? (Why am I still there, you ask? I don't know how to start looking for a new job.) I wouldn't mind working like a dog to build MY career, but I'm building HIS. Thanks for your time.
Tortured
Dear Tortured,

Your boss, in addition to being a Type A personality, is in serious trouble. Step back a minute. Here is a guy who is so disorganized that he has to assign work at all hours of the day and night, who can't respect weekends or holidays, who has so little control over his situation that he has to rely on other people to solve the problems that he has created for himself. This sense of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming responsibilities has made him so anxious that he is on the verge of a medical incident that will either kill or paralyze him, and yet he goes on and on doing things the same way because that's the only way he knows how to do them. This boss is in the last stage of collapse, the one that immediately precedes death -- literal or career.

Crazy bosses have a lot of different dimensions. One of those is what psychologists call Rigidity of Character. "Normal" people, if any exist, have a certain flexibility to their personalities that enables them to bend like willows in the wind when storms blow. Crazy people, particularly those in positions of authority, tend to stick to the way they know because their fear of failure and their egomania prevents them from doing otherwise. This may confer a lot of power -- these are the people who get what they want because that's the ONLY way they will have it. But in the end it also makes them fail, because true flexibility is necessary for strategic success.

Keep on trying to look at this from a distance. Yes, your existence is lousy. I'm not denying it. But for the guy you're working for, it's fatal. He's got high blood pressure. He's already had mini-strokes, which means he's terrified. He knows he can't stop himself, because he's a nut and he's achieved all he's done by working precisely the way that is killing him. Are you beginning to feel something for this person? Could it possibly be... empathy?

I've worked for a lot of crazy people. They were, at times, just as bad as your boss. I have found, over the years, that it sometimes is best to provide this suffering individual with the one thing that is most precious in a business setting: friendship. Sit with him. Talk to him about nothing. Share a muffin. Let him vent all over you. Complain about YOUR medical problems, even if you don't really have any. Try to feel love for this poor, sad, doomed person. And when he steps too far out of line, tell him that you can't do this or that. That you'll do it Monday. Tell him, "Bob, you're killing both of us with this pace." If he were a child, you would attempt to set certain limits, even if the kid had a bit of a temper tantrum as a result. He's not going to fire you. He needs you, or why would you have such a heavy work load?

Don't worry. It won't last forever. Your major challenge lies ahead, when he finally pops his noggin. Just because he's headed for that great land from whence no traveler returns doesn't mean you want to go there with him. Start shopping for new bosses within the infrastructure -- discreetly, of course. You're going to need one.