What to Do When You’ve Got a Mean Boss

Many years ago I worked for a manager who was super unkind. She made me feel like I was doing a bad job. She made it a point to highlight when I wasn’t meeting expectations, that no one wanted to work with me, and that it was her call whether I kept my job or lost it. She made it clear — at least in my eyes — that she didn’t trust me, and that everyone else shared her perspective. At one point I talked to one of her peers who confided, “You’re never going to get promoted if she’s working anywhere near you.” Woof. I lived under the cloud of her disapproval even after I moved off her team and moved to another part of the business. Even after we stopped working together, her words rang loud in my ears and crippled my confidence. So, to the writer of this question, I feel you. 

A manager’s responsibility is to work together with their people in order to accomplish more as a team than they could alone. But whether it’s a manager, an executive, or a colleague, folks often act “unkind” and stymie productivity and performance. As workers who also love Jesus, we are not without resources to face the challenge of unkind bosses head on. Let’s look at a few perspectives to find a way forward.

Your Manager Needs God’s Grace (And So Do You)

One of the hardest things about working with humans is bumping up against their sinful edges. Your manager is sinful. Your coworkers are sinful. And because of our fallen nature, we make a mess of things whether we try to or not (Rom 3:23). No matter where you work, fallenness is all around you. 

Other peoples’ unkindness, though, does not negate our call to live at peace with them, and is certainly not a reason to return unkindness to them (Rom 12:17–18, 21). Christ exhorts us to live differently, showing love to those who are hard to love, even to those who mean us harm (Matt 5:43–48).

This can be cold comfort. But it’s going to get more uncomfortable before we can move forward. Here’s why.

You are also a sinner in need of God’s grace. 

Okay — I’m glad we got that out of the way. One of the most nefarious aspects of our fallen nature is we tend to downplay our own sinfulness and play up others’ sinfulness. We convince ourselves that we are in the right and our perspective is the correct view of the world. Recall Matthew 7:3–5 for a bit. In whose eye is the log?

Before writing a manager off as “unkind” give the relationship to Jesus in prayer. Ask Jesus to show you where you may be in the wrong too. Ask Jesus to show you if your story is just that: a story. The antidote to the stories we tell ourselves is the illuminating light of Christ. Earnestly seek perspective before deciding whether to engage your manager. And whatever you decide, approach your interactions from a place of humility. 

Jesus Is All-Powerful

You can be confident in a tough conversation, even with a manager, by remembering what the Bible says about you. You are created in the image of the invisible God (Gen 1:27). You are so loved by Jesus that he died for you so that you and he could be together for eternity (Rom 5:8). The spirit of God that raised Christ from the dead lives in you (Rom 8:11). If God is for you can anyone be against you? No, not even a jerky manager. 

When you know who you are according to Scripture, you can be confident your worth is not dependent on what your boss thinks of you, it frees you to engage the conversation more directly. In this freedom, your footing secure, have a conversation with your manager. Tell them your intent is to work well with them. Give them examples of how you perceive their behavior as unkind. Ask them to clarify their intent and share their perspective on how you two might work more collaboratively — which, after all, is in the best interest of you both. This is hard to do when we’re wedded to self-preservation. Give it to God, ask him to speak through you, and remember his glory is more than your discomfort (Psalm 62: 2–7).

A caveat here: Some unkindness should never be tolerated. If you feel harassed, threatened, intimidated, or discriminated against, speak with a trusted colleague or human resources leader. For violations of any number of laws and workplace policies, and you need advocates on your side.

Thomas Merton encourages us to grapple with the “humble realization of our mysterious being as persons in whom God dwells, with infinite sweetness and inalienable power.” It is so good and it can be so hard to live from this source of power. It was definitely hard for me to keep this truth top of mind when I had a tough boss. If I’m keeping it real, I didn’t do very well the things I highlighted above. I actually was telling myself some stories about how I was right and she was wrong. But as time has passed, I’ve been able to see that this leader was in need of God’s grace and that I was probably in need of a little ego check myself. I couldn’t see it at the time because I was so wedded to being seen as successful. As I’ve let that go, though, I see that my identity is not my work. I can be free to engage in hard conversations knowing that Jesus has freed me from the life of chasing success and affirmation. I hope you experience this same freedom.

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