Does Your Difficult or Abusive Boss Need a Jerk-O-Meter?

Does your boss hate you, or are they a jerk to everyone? Here’s how to tell. When they’re not watching, test their overall jerk factor with a handy-dandy “Jerk-O-Meter”.

dealing with a jerk or a difficult boss

“The MIT Jerk-O-Meter attaches to your phone and uses electronic speech analysis to provide instant feedback to the person speaking on factors like stress, empathy and overall jerk factor. Studies evaluated how a person’s speaking style could reflect his or her interest in a conversation, when going out on a date or perhaps in buying a product. Results show that a person’s speaking style and tone of voice can predict objective outcomes with 75-85% accuracy.” (invented by Anmol Madan and colleagues at MIT Media Lab)

Think I’m exaggerating? One reader said this (and I paraphrase):

“I don’t know how to approach him because frankly, I’m afraid of him. He’s yelled at me and treats me like every day is my last on the job. I really think he hates me. And since he’s technically not breaking any policies, HR says there’s not much they can do. I’m trying to get up the courage to talk to him about this, but I’m really nervous. Can you help?”

Well, it appears you’ve got yourself a prime candidate for the “Boss Behaving Badly” Award. Unfortunately, few companies have rules against being a jerk, although he could earn himself a poor evaluation on communication skills and leadership competencies.

You may be given a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it. –Anonymous

Thankfully, there’s plenty you can do to improve your situation. Use one or more of the below strategies:

Have the talk: Calmly explain why you don’t deserve bad treatment. Say, “When you do/say X, I feel Y (disengaged, discouraged, frustrated, upset, nervous) Then say, “I’m asking if you would treat me with like respect.”

Lean into it: Ask if they have concerns about your performance. Objectively consider this possibility. State your intent to improve things, then do your best to fix those issues.

Reframe: change how you see things. After the wildfire, our insurance adjuster would use the phrase, “If not for the fire…” to clarify why they’d make payments on certain expenses but not for others. It’s possible one day you could say, “If not for that boss, I wouldn’t have the great job I have now…wouldn’t have learned how NOT to manage people…wouldn’t have learned how to get along with people high on the Jerk-O-Meter scale!”

Make yourself indispensable: Anticipate their needs, respond more quickly, smile more often (go on, force yourself), work it, work it, work it! 

Limit your exposure: ‘Nuff said.

Find positive people: spend time with people who are optimistic, results-oriented and successful. This mindset can rub off on you and provide a buffer against the boss’s negative emotions.

De-escalate: In the customer service world, we learned to lower our voice a notch when facing an upset person. Stay calm. Respond with respect. Don’t give in to the emotion.

Don’t take it personally: Your boss could have a health condition, trouble at home, or be unsure of their own job security. Avoid making assumptions it’s only you.

Look for a new job: Put yourself in the driver’s seat so you feel a greater sense of control. This often works wonders on our psyche.

Gird your loins and wait it out: It’s possible they may be on their way out for one reason or another. (A friend of mine was once told, “Change happens around here one retirement at a time.”)

Then let me know how it goes. I promise to keep it confidential, but would like to anonymously share your results with the rest of our readers.

Oh, and before we go, here’s a message to the Boss:

Making people afraid of you is not a sound leadership strategy. People shouldn’t feel like they’re walking on eggshells around you. Your job is to earn respect, not fear. If this is all about a performance issue, then address it. Be clear with your expectations, be objective, and most of all be fair.

A few reading recommendations for the Boss:

  • It’s Your Ship, by Capt. D. Michael Abrashoff
  • Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT by Paul L. Marciano
  • The No A-hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton, PhD. (if you can get past the crude term, it’s a terrific book)

Thanks to everyone for writing in. Keep those questions coming!


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