Don’t Let Your Stressed-Out Boss Stress You Out

by Annie McKee

Is your boss stressed to the max and making you miserable? Join the club. Stress is an epidemic among managers and leaders today, and burnout is catching up fast.

We all know the reasons: the rapidly changing economic landscape; fast-moving technologies; 24/7 work with little to no downtime. It all adds up to far too much pressure. We’ve all been doing too much for too long, which has left your boss (and maybe you) trapped in the Sacrifice Syndrome: Everyone’s been giving and giving and giving…and now we have nothing left to give. A boss who may have once been known to lead with emotional intelligence, build a great team, and motivate people becomes a grumpy, cynical, anxious person when stressed. He’s now hovering over you, or worse, disappearing when you need him most.

What happens next is where the real problems crop up: you become stressed, too! You literally catch your boss’s destructive emotions. You’ve become demotivated, frustrated, and even angry. You want out. If you can’t quit, you dial back your contribution and just try to wait it out. Now it’s a matter of your own survival.

Stress

Don’t let it get the better of you.

It’s stunning how quickly your stressed-out boss can turn you into a stressed-out team member. This is partly because of the contagious nature of emotions. They spread like wildfire among people—and even faster if one of those people has some control over our fate, as bosses do. Another reason our boss’s stress becomes our own is that many of us are already close to stressed-out ourselves. We too have been sacrificing and giving up a lot for a long time, and the cracks are showing. It doesn’t take much to push us into a bad place.

Let’s look at a real person—a friend and colleague whom I’ll call “Nathan.” Two short years ago, Nathan was quietly thrilled to step into senior management. Sure, he’d heard through the grapevine that his new boss Geoffrey was “tough”, but he’d had difficult bosses before. Nathan also knew he was tired from the climb to the top. He had been running hard for a long time, but this was what he’d been waiting for all his life, right? He could dig deep and find the energy for the big leap this job required.

During the first few months with the company, Nathan realized two things: first, he didn’t have as much energy as the last time he started a new job. Second, he was stunned to realize that the honeymoon disappeared before he could even enjoy it. Geoffrey was on him all the time. Nothing he did was right. At first, he thought it was his fault—maybe he needed to try harder, speed up, step up. He did so. It didn’t work. Geoffrey was still caustic and he just seemed so angry all the time. A year in and Nathan himself was getting ticked off. He’d go home and lash out—not at all like him. Nathan was catching Geoffrey’s disease, and there didn’t seem to be a cure anywhere in sight.

Despite a lifetime spent in an industry he loved, in a company he’d admired, he just couldn’t see the point anymore. In fact, neither Geoffrey nor Nathan’s team members seemed to care much about anything other than short-term results.

This leads to another problem with stressed-out bosses—what they aren’t doing. As long as they are focused on dealing with their own issues, they’re not spending time helping you to connect with what’s most important to you at work—that noble purpose your organization serves that inspires you, or that hopeful view of the future that makes you want to keep going. A sense of purpose was exactly what Nathan needed to counter the effects of the burnout heading his way, and it just wasn’t there.

So, if stress is epidemic and bosses are spreading it to us, what can we do? Let’s start by what you can’t do: you can’t change your boss or fix his response to stress. Learning how to deal with pressure is a very individual journey. If indeed your boss has tipped over the edge, no amount of perfection on your part, early-delivery of projects or compliments will help. Sure, do your job and do it well, but don’t expect miracles.

What you can do is work on yourself. First, you need to do your best to understand why your boss is burned out, then dig deep to find empathy—that unique human ability to understand another’s reality. It’s important to take some time to consciously try to recognize and understand the emotional state your boss is feeling. Engage in perspective taking by deliberately trying to see the world, events—and yourself—through your boss’s eyes. Empathy, by the way, is a key emotional intelligence competency.

This is what Nathan did. He made a conscious attempt to “get” his boss, veering away from defensiveness and anger . He tried to look at the whole picture, including his boss’s challenges with conflict on the team and a difficult chairman. Slowly, he found ways to hang out with Geoffrey, to have a laugh together now and then, and he got Geoffrey talking about his own life and family.

Empathizing with a man like Geoffrey is not easy, as our natural response to be defensive, even aggressive—not empathic. But if you can feel and express empathy, a) your boss will likely sense it, and this might help him and b) you will be able to remain grounded in the face of bad behavior, as you know it’s his problem, not yours. Paradoxically, when Nathan leaned in to this stressed-out boss, it helped to calm Geoffrey down.

Empathy also makes it easier to create appropriate emotional distance from your boss. This is a bit tricky, as you can’t shut down or have no relationship at all with him. Rather, you need to constantly monitor your own reactions and make a conscious effort to control your emotional response. Take stock and find that impermeable psychological boundary that separates you from your boss. What part of the stress and negativity belongs to him, and what belongs to you?

Then and most importantly, you need to take a good hard look at your own stress—at work and at home. How are you doing, really? Look at your relationships at home and at work. Are you testy? Irritable? Impatient? Or…nasty? We all act this way sometimes. And this kind of behavior (especially at home) is a good diagnostic.

If you see that you are heading for problems, or have entered into pre-burnout conditions, you need to do something now. Free up some time for renewal. And don’t be fooled: Renewal doesn’t happen as a result of a vacation. Remember that summer break? Seems like a long time ago, right? To deal with the kind of stress we all have at work today, renewal must become a continuous way of life, not an event.

There are a few things we know work for most everyone, such as laughing with coworkers (not at the boss!), doing fun activities outside of work, exercise, friendship, and setting healthy priorities. It’s becoming clear, too, that mindfulness meditation has a profound impact on one’s ability to stay grounded and manage stress. This movement is growing, in part because of the stress we’re all experiencing. Now, well-known mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts, Michael Baime at the University of Pennsylvania and others have now led tens of thousands of people through mindfulness based stress reduction programs, in which normal people learn to incorporate breathing and meditation exercises into daily life while increasing their own self-awareness about their stress.

You also want to engage a sense of hope by imagining how you’d like things to be at work, with your boss and probably at home. It sounds so simple, and in a way it is. Hope is natural for human beings, and it really helps with the day-to-day burden of stress. Try paying some attention to what you would like to be feeling—and why. This will help you to be optimistic and more mindful about your reactions. This requires emotional self awareness and emotional self control—two more key emotional intelligence competencies.

And Nathan? He’s still on the job, though that wasn’t a given a few months ago. About a year in, he realized that he needed to get hold of himself, as he was fast slipping into dissonance and burnout. He started to shift priorities, then realized he had to shift his mindset, first. He actually took a course on mindfulness and learned a bit about how everyday people can meditate. He brought his family into the conversation, so it didn’t feel so lonely anymore. He’s doing ok. Geoffrey, sadly, is on his way out. He just couldn’t get a grip and the entire company was starting to feel the effects.

Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.

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