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How to handle an abusive boss

They can scream, threaten and even terrorize. Most importantly, abusive bosses can fire you or make your life so miserable you wish they'd fire you. Here's what you can do about it.

When I was a little kid I was scared of all kinds of things: my dad, the neighborhood bully, yellowjackets, monsters under the bed, ghosts in the closet, you name it. Now I'm a grown-up and I'm not scared of anything...except my wife.

But it wasn't that long ago that someone scared me even more than my wife did. My boss. Actually, I had a string of scary bosses. Managers definitely have a way of being intimidating, and there's a very good reason for that. It's because they can.

Bosses can bully you, scream at you, threaten you, and even terrorize you. Most importantly, they can fire you or even worse--make your life so miserable you wish they'd fire you. In fact, at-willemployment gives bosses the power to do almost anything they want, as long as it's legal.

What can you do about it? Well, you can do anything you want; it's a free country. You can quit, yell at your wife, kick the dog, punch a hole in your kitchen wall, or become a monk and submit to a vow of poverty. But all that's likely to get you is divorced, bitten, a broken hand, and a shaved head.

There's really nothing consequential--like getting satisfaction, getting him or her fired, or getting your job back--that you can do. That's precisely what makes working for an abusive boss one of the most stressful things in an already stressful life.

On the other hand, you can accept the situation and learn to deal with it as best you can. There are ways to handle and maybe even outlast an abusive boss. I spent years trying to figure it out and finally came up with a three-step process that actually works.

Step 1: Understanding
Understanding what makes these people the way they are is important. The one thing abusive, dysfunctional managers seem to have in common is that they're acting out on you because of their own issues that have absolutely nothing to do with you.

That knowledge may help you sleep better at night, but it's more important that you develop some empathy for the poor bastard and gain some perspective. Remember that he's human and has faults, just like everyone else. Moreover, you just work for him. You can quit. He has to live with himself every day for the rest of his life.

Step 2: Strategy
There's an old Japanese proverb: If you wait by the river long enough, you'll see the body of your enemy float by. One way of handling an abusive boss is to wait her out. On the other hand, "long enough" can be a mighty long time. While you're waiting by the river, you should use what you learned in step 1 to gain some perspective.

If you harbor negative feelings toward your boss, they'll surely leak out from time to time. You may not notice, but others will and so will she. Try to curb those feelings. Don't go over her head and don't go toe to toe with her. If you do, you may win the battle, but you'll surely lose the war.

Instead, find a way to respect your boss for what she does well and use your strengths to complement her weaknesses. Whether she's willing to admit it or not, she needs you or you wouldn't be there.

Step 3: Practice
Next time your boss pisses you off, just remember that it's not your fault; he's only human; he has some strengths or he wouldn't be your boss; and he needs you to help him out or you wouldn't be there. Lastly, you can always quit, but he still has to live with himself. And that's probably why he's abusive to begin with.

It's hard at first, but with practice, it gets easier and eventually becomes second nature. Using this method, I survived an abusive CEO for two years until the board canned him. It really works. I'm also relatively sure that employees have used a similar process on me. That's right, I'm a reformed abusive boss.

If the process fails for some reason, remember that karma will surely catch up with your abusive manager and reincarnate him or her as a dung beetle.

If you end up losing the war and getting terminated, be sure to remember my favorite parting line, "I've been fired by better people."