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Dear Heidi: How can I tell my boss his leadership style is giving me anxiety?

Or, is that career suicide?

Leadership styles vary as much as leaders do, some are good, others not so good. Unfortunately, most of us will experience a boss who’s leadership style is less than optimal. How you comport yourself in the face of an adverse leadership style, says a lot about you and can be a great learning opportunity.

During my career as a grain trader, I had some terrific, supportive bosses, and only one I would consider "bad." It was during a time of great flux for the company, and a new big boss was sent in to “clean house.” The day he arrived, we knew we were in for significant changes.

This person’s leadership style was simple — pure fear. There was even a rumor that he carried a gun, but that was an urban legend. Stories grew as big as his intimidation of the team. Because this new boss was supposed to “clean house,” we were all on-guard,. I mean we were drinking Maalox at our desks instead of Diet Coke, he was that daunting.

The boss began to individually meet with each team member to interview and learn more about us. During my meeting, the boss stood up from behind his desk and accused me of doing something highly unethical. I’ll never forget it; I was in shock. By this point, I was nearly at the end of my civility, and at that moment, I had to decide if this job was worth keeping. Accused of something I had not done, would never do, yet I had to respond, thank goodness for my social codes.

I garnered every ounce of respect for the position the boss held and politely told him that I had not done what he accused me of, in any way, shape, or form. I told him that he could take away my job, but he could not take my reputation. I unequivocally was innocent. I was seriously ready to walk away from a job I otherwise loved. Heck, I’d save money not buying so much Maalox.

The boss’s reaction stunned me, he sat down, looked me in the eyes and said, “Yes, I know you didn’t do that, I just wanted to see what you’d say.” I kept the job, the boss quickly was transferred and we could breathe again. Today, behavior like this is entirely unacceptable. It was then too, but I had a choice to make; stand up to a bully or leave.

If you experience a leadership style that makes you anxious, look inward. Is it possible to initiate a dialog with your boss? He or she may not be aware that their leadership is causing anxiety. You need to self-assess and “read” the situation, and only you will know if bringing this to your boss' attention is career suicide, even though it should not be. 

If your boss' style is akin to my old boss, be strong, and decide if this work situation is a good fit for you. Nothing is forever, except your reputation. Maybe a bad boss will move on, or adversely, up, but can you wait that long? Is it possible for you to succeed and be noticed by other leaders who can help you move forward beyond your bad boss?

Ultimately, stay fast to your social codes and respectfully confront a bad boss either head-on or by examining whether that company is the right place for you, then act accordingly. Learn from this experience, and use the lessons and resilience you acquire when you become the boss. Then it will be your turn to model the behavior you currently expect from others.


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