How do you Deal with a Jealous Boss?

One of the most frustrating experiences in our professional lives is to work for a boss who is jealous of us. Working for such people is a lost cause – you can never please them – and they will always find a way of putting you down. The levels of frustration build up until we can no longer take it. We leave. And go to the next job. Where the pattern usually repeats.

How can we deal with such a situation?

Understand the roots of jealousy. It stems from deep insecurity of oneself. We are never jealous of people who have less than us. We are only jealous of people who have more or are better than us. This perception of the other being better or having more is the source of our jealously. Insecurity is usually pumped into us as children. Our societies value conformism and discipline and not creativity and individuality. Parents take pride in calling their children ‘well behaved’. Very few parents take pride in celebrating the child’s being unique. Even if some parents celebrate their child being special, it is always within the confines of what is socially acceptable. A child is special if (s)he is solving mathematical problems at a young age. But the child is weird if (s)he spends time playing with stones and frogs in the garden. We want our children to be special within the boundaries that we prescribe.

This is a problem. As children, we all want to express ourselves freely. We usually aren’t born with many inhibitions, and therefore we tend to do, say and explore that which comes freely to us. However, children also have the need to be loved – to belong. This means that children tend to go towards securing the approval of their parents. Thus, our individuality gets crushed and we settle for belonging. This alienates us from our true selves. This is the birth of insecurity. All our lives, we desperately seek approval from the people above us. In our professional lives, parents get replaced by our bosses.

Thus, insecurity has its roots in the need to conform to a social norm, and in the process, we end up losing our sense of self. When such people become our managers, they feel threatened by anybody who stands out, who displays talent. They feel jealous because they see someone under them so easily displaying and expressing their potential, while they have been deprived all their lives. This is almost an intolerable proposition. And therefore, they will do anything to thwart such people.

Such bosses also tend to be sycophantic. That is, they become subservient to their superiors. This is the same approval-seeking mindset that they carry over from their unfortunate childhood. They steal the credit of those under them. They project themselves as the only person who does the hard work. They appear to be busy, talkative, and over demonstrative.

Know that such people will not change. No matter what you do, how much you try to ‘please’ and win over such people, you cannot eliminate the source of inferiority in them. It would be best to avoid such people. But in the event you cannot, what do we do?

You will have to ensure that you do not Outshine the Master. Robert Greene in his Machiavellian book, the 48 Laws of Power, has this to say:

“Everyone has insecurities. When you show yourself in the world and display your talents, you naturally stir up all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity. This is to be expected. You cannot spend your life worrying about the petty feelings of others. With those above you, however, you must take a different approach: When it comes to power, outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all. “

Robert Green. The 48 Laws of Power

As Greene says, we must be very careful of the image that we portray to the people around us. We are all wearing masks. Notice how our behavior changes with our friends, our parents, and our lovers. We are constantly calibrating our behaviors to suit the needs of the social setting. We need to accept this as a facet of life. There is no use behaving moralistically and trying to impose one’s own ideas of perfection and puritanical judgment on the world. The world is what it is. We must learn how to carefully calibrate our behaviors to our advantage, without losing sight of our values.

To do this, we need to develop an attitude of supreme acceptance. As Arthur Schopenhauer said,

“So if you have to live amongst men, you must allow everyone the right to exist in accordance with the character he has, whatever it turns out to be: and all you should strive to do is to make use of this character in such a way as its kind and nature permit, rather than to hope for any alteration in it, or to condemn it off-hand for what it is. This is the true sense of the maxim–Live and let live. That, however, is a task which is difficult in proportion as it is right.”

Arthur Schopenhauer. Parerga and Paralipomena

He also says,

But if you come across any special trait of meanness or stupidity—­in life or in literature,—­you must be careful not to let it annoy or distress you, but to look upon it merely as an addition to your knowledge—­a new fact to be considered in studying the character of humanity.  Your attitude towards it will be that of the mineralogist who stumbles upon a very characteristic specimen of a mineral.

Arthur Schopenhauer. Counsels and Maxims

Understand that any effort to complain about such bosses, feel sorry for yourself, or try to avoid the problem by ignoring it, will all lead you to misery. We must face the fact that this is how people are. Having laid down acceptance as the base, we free ourselves from unnecessary emotional battles that drain our mental energies. We now have our minds free to take up strategic plans to counteract such bosses.

If you must stay, and you are in it for the long run, then adopt an attitude where you constantly solicit inputs, advice, and feedback from your boss. This has to be done very carefully. You cannot appear foolish and incompetent. And yet, at the same time, you cannot appear to be super-efficient in your work. Don’t flatter. Just do your work and privately seek advice on your work. Even if you know that this feedback may be worthless, play the game.

These insecure bosses will use this to dominate you. They will tell others and their superiors that you rely on their advice. They will tell others of the time they spend mentoring you. Let them have this illusion. Meanwhile, work towards becoming indispensable in the team. Work hard. Learn voraciously. But also help others. Be generous in lending a helping hand to others in the team, especially the juniors. What this does, is that you position yourself as a spider in the center of your professional web – absolutely critical to the functioning of the team.

Then go about securing some contact with your boss’s superior. You must – at the appropriate time – make yourself visible. People must know that you exist and that you are capable. The hope is that somebody higher up in your organization isn’t insecure. Someone higher up can recognize and promote talent. Be patient and at the right forum, sound your voice and display your talents. Again, be careful not to seem too cocky or too arrogant. Be gentle, recognize others’ contributions to your work. Have the kind of silent confidence of a zen warrior. When the time is right, make one punch and that should leave a lasting impression.

In all this, do not lose sight of who you are. While you may be playing the social game, in your private affairs, you are free. You are yourself. Spend time connecting to this valuable part of yourself. For the world has a way of pulling you into petty politics. This way, over time, you develop a deep sense of personal values and an impeccable character. This will never go unnoticed. The world is filled with shallow people who are always parroting the latest option on a subject matter, pretending to be experts. Very few have the capabilities to work hard and distill complex information into a workable strategy. Be patient. Over time, you will shine.

In summary, working for a jealous boss is challenging. Know that you cannot change them. If you have to stay, then accept them for who they are. And dig your heels in and work hard and learn as much as possible. Use this learning to help others freely and easily. Become indispensable in the team. At the same time, work on soliciting the advice and opinion of your boss, however worthless it may be. Never outshine the master. Be patient. At the right time, at the right forum, make those important contributions or statements, which will have an impact on people that matter. You are looking for that one person in a position of power to notice you. Seize the opportunity and go for the kill. Bypass the boss – you may get a promotion – or be assigned to another team. Your patience has paid off, and you haven’t wasted precious energy on endless emotional battles. More importantly, you have acquired the patience and social skills to deal with such people. And that is a valuable lesson in life.

A picture of contrasts. The ancient riverine forests of the now parched Sabarmati River give way to modern jungles of brutal glass and steel.

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