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“Working for You Isn’t Working for Me” Authors on Bad Bosses and More: Part II

During Part II of my conversation with “Working for You Isn’t Working for Me: The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Boss” authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster, we covered everything from the failure of many bosses to recognize the non-business side of employee relationships, to bosses being terrorized, to what it means for employees to take back their personal power, to learning to accept one’s boss–and more. Read on for interview Part II (of three):

1.    The 8 phases of the distressing employee/boss cycle seems very similar to progression of a non-work toxic relationship. It seems that many bosses forget the interpersonal aspect of employee relationships and focus on the business side only–would you agree?

Kathi: I think we both agree with that, and that’s why we write these books, and why we do executive coaching. Because they don’t want to do this–the people part.

Katherine: And we understand that most people in management today have not received management training, and probably, in addition to being a manager, also have their own workload that they are attending to. That seems to be the way it’s structured right now. And the tendency is to focus on my workload and to wish that my employees will do what they need to do to get their work done.

Katherine: One thing that seems so interesting is when colleagues don’t get along. Again, arguing and conflict tend to mount in stressful times. So when two members of a staff don’t get along, they become furious that, I have to spend part of my day helping them resolve this conflict. Not avoiding those things and stepping in and finding out what’s going on is really the best remedy.

2.    Can the tables be turned? Is it possible for these same things to happen to bosses as a result of their employee behavior?

Kathi: Yes.

Katherine: Absolutely. A boss can be terrorized by an employee.

Kathi: And they also will hire somebody and there will be a honeymoon, thinking that person is what the resume said, and then they get disappointed that the person undersold and is under-delivering. It does happen in reverse.

But you know, there’s a power thing-–the boss still has more control. The boss can let them go. We wrote this book with that in mind, that it went both ways.

3.    Is it much harder to deal with and fix a bad boss/employee relationship that’s in the 7th or 8th phase, rather than the 1st or 2nd? Is the process different?

These are progressive stages, so by the time you get to 7 or 8, you’ve been in pain for quite some time, you’re caught in this relationship, you feel trapped and have tried all kinds of things to change it. It’s not a pretty picture. A boss, if they realize their employee is in the 7th or 8th phase, could have an a-ha moment and stage an intervention and say we have to change what’s going on between us, how can we do it? If both parties are willing, there’s a possibility of it changing.

4.    In Chapter 2, you talk about boss behaviors that drive employees crazy. We see these personalities and behaviors in our non-work lives too–but in the workplace, do these behaviors have potential to be more toxic?

Kathi: They are toxic in general. But what happens at work is that a boss has a power over you, so it may feel worse at work.

Katherine: I think it can feel more toxic at work. It would be as toxic as if you were having this problem with someone else with whom you depend on for your livelihood. So, in other words, the intensity of the difficult experience is especially great with bosses because you literally feel your survival depends upon this person. Whether it actually does or not, that’s the feeling state, so I think you can have just as toxic an experience in a really bad marriage or with a really horrible parent.

Kathi: In a way, a bad boss/employee relationship is like the parent/child relationship. We have a lot of different authority figures in our life, and sometimes when you get married, that person you also perceive to be the authority figure in your life, and you project, so, it’s very similar.

Katherine: What’s interesting is as adults, generally, we spend more time at work than anyplace else, unless you’re at home, and so one of the things we always notice is that you’re talking about the bosses inside and outside of the workplace, you talk to the grocery check person about it, you’re talking about it at parties—you’re talking about it all the time. I think because we spend so much time in the workplace, the amount of real estate a difficult boss takes up in your brain can be all-consuming, because not only all day are you thinking about it, but when you go home and are with your family or are with your friends, you’re thinking about it.

5.   Do you think a lot of bosses become complacent if employees have been with them for a long period of time, assuming everything is fine–and that’s when they hit a snag in the relationship?

Katherine: I do, only because if you just assume everything is fine–assuming is always just a dangerous activity. And what I’ve found, when I’m meeting with some of those employees, is that no one is checking on them and they’re not being given even some kind of feedback can lead them to look for opportunities elsewhere, or to feel like they’re not measuring up. Again, no information creates too-easy avoid for the employee to assume not pleasant things.

Kathi: I also think that as your career changes, every couple of years, every 5-10 years, we tend to have different needs and wants at work, so while at one point in our life you may have wanted a high-powered TV job, and then 10 years later, maybe you have children and maybe then you want to only work four days a week. So, anything could happen where the employee’s needs change, and therefore the work environment probably has to change. And nobody wants to talk about that.

Katherine: Right. When you have a good employee you don’t want them to change.

6.    Can you talk a bit about the importance of employees taking back their personal power?

Katherine: This idea, about taking back your personal power is our second step, about detaching. The aim of detaching is to get some emotional distance, and the reason why you have to take back your power is the tendency with a difficult boss, to give that person your power, to have their description of you, their reaction to you, define who you are. So taking back your personal power isn’t necessarily about changing the boss; in fact, it’s absolutely about taking care of yourself. So, there are these three areas of restoring your energy, repairing your emotional state, and rebuilding your confidence. And those activities don’t really involve “the boss.”

Kathi: When we coach people, this is what we have found–the boss is not coming in for coaching. They are not the ones losing their sense of  grounding–it’s the employee. So, it’s very difficult for them to look at the situation objectively when they’re not feeling well, and their confidence is below ground, and all of that. And people resort to all those bad habits. When they don’t like the boss, they start drinking, they start not taking care of themselves, isolating, getting depressed. So, it’s really critical that we do get people to understand that they do have control, that the boss only has control over your paycheck, or whether you’re going to keep that job, but you have control over yourself. And you can’t really make smart decisions, or capture this relationship and do well in this relationship, if you’re not taking care of yourself. And then you can build from there.

Katherine: It’s almost like we let difficult bosses hold us hostage emotionally. And so what we’re talking about is letting yourself out of that jail. Here are some actions you can take to reconnect with your physical health, with your emotional health and with your confidence, understanding that you do have skills, you do have value, and you do deserve good things.

Kathi: I mean, you rarely will somebody say, I hate my boss, so I’m going to take up tennis. You don’t think that way. You think, I hate my boss, so I’m going to go get a big bottle of wine and watch terrible TV. You feel like crap, so therefore you’re going to feel like crap. It’s the complete opposite.

7.    You talk about accepting who your boss is at some point, and then focusing on the things that you can do.

Kathi: Acceptance is a really important aspect of this, and no one likes to hear it–-no one wants to accept. But when we’re giving a workshop and we explain it this way, it sometimes helps. Everyone has a family member who they wish wasn’t in their family–-but eventually you grow to accept that person. You accept that they’re going to drink too much at Thanksgiving, that they’re going to do something stupid. Eventually you grow to accept it and it’s part of the family. So we’re all capable of accepting, but we don’t want to. But we’re capable of it, and it’s really important, if you can accept your boss they way they are, then you can build from there. But if you continue to fight it, you’re always in a battle.

Katherine: One of the things we always say to people is, you’re telling me I have to approve of this person, and that’s not true at all. What we’re saying is, acceptance is acknowledging the reality of who the person is. It’s a careful distinction, but it’s a really important one. I can’t work with a chronically late boss if I don’t come to terms with the fact that this person is chronically late.

Kathi: So once you accept that, then you start to build in the time buffers without resentment. You start to come up with strategies that actually make you both successful, without resentment. Because there’s something you have to accept about everybody; no boss is perfect. They may be great at supporting you and communicating but maybe they’re not good at getting you a raise.  There’s always something.

Stay tuned for the final part of our interview next week — and catch Part I here if you missed it.

Amy K. McDonnell

About Amy K. McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the editorial manager on the content services team and has been with both CareerBuilder and the city of Chicago for nearly a decade. She writes on a range of recruitment topics on The Hiring Site, striving to bring a dose of clarity and humor to sometimes complicated issues around employee attraction, engagement and retention. When she's not working, Amy spends as much time as possible reading, pretending to be a chef, writing short stories, eating Nutella out of the jar, waiting for CTA buses and trains, going to see her favorite bands live, and spending time with people who inspire and challenge her.


  1. [...] Missed the beginning of my interview with Katherine and Kathi? Catch up with Part I and Part II. [...]

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