Coach at work: 'My bully boss is killing my career prospects'
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Coach at work: 'My bully boss is killing my career prospects'

We put your workplace conundrums to an executive coach.

I am an APS5 IT engineer in a non-ongoing role. My supervisor, an EL1, is angry all the time and continually puts me down in front of others at section meetings. He doesn't mention any of the good work I do but he's happy to take all the credit for it with his supervisor (who is his mate). I've never worked in any environment like this before: it's negative and aggressive all the time. My team is all male and that's the way they seem to work.

A friend in the section, an APS5 like me, says I should complain to HR about my supervisor. But if I complain I'll never get a permanent job. I'm sick with stress; I've even seen a doctor because I've never felt this bad. My GP says I need to leave as it's too stressful for me I can't even sleep properly. But I'm only 26 and I can't afford to kill my career by getting pegged as a whinger.

"Buy some time, space and perspective by getting a medical certificate."

"Buy some time, space and perspective by getting a medical certificate."Credit:Jessica Shapiro

In cases of acute distress, you will always have a friend: distance. Please buy some time, space and perspective by getting a medical certificate authorising you to take some leave – your GP feels you need some – for reasons that your supervisor doesn't need to know about. Your diagnosis of your work situation is that you are backed into a tight corner with no room to move, and you can't know how accurate that is until you've had some sleep and found a place of greater calm.

Your career is still in its early phase, which means you're still figuring out what makes you happy at work, and how to ask for it. These early career events feel like calamities because you are still acquiring the experience and coping skills that get most of us through rough patches at work.

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Executive coach Jacqueline Jago.

Executive coach Jacqueline Jago.Credit:Sari Sutton

So here's a critical skill for success at work: asking for what you want. It also happens to be the most powerful antidote to whingeing known to woman or man. You are right on the money with your concern that getting pegged as a whinger will affect your employability, so it will be important to wean yourself off a complaining (aka whingeing) habit that could derail you at work or at interview. The intensity of complaining is linked to how helpless you feel, so it may be worth building your sense of your own power by making experiments around asserting your wants, needs and feelings. Start small, and challenge yourself over time to build your capacity and your power. This is neither trivial, nor optional. Lean in.

Navigating through the rough waters of poor supervision isn't a career-ending event: it's more a rite of passage. Learning to make calm requests of your supervisor (including communicating the effects of his behaviour) can be seen as another. For instance: "I'm not sure [EL2] understands the role I played in that task and I'm worried he'll think I'm not contributing – are you happy for me to let him know?" Or: "I was a bit surprised when you gave that feedback at the team meeting – would you be willing to give feedback at our weekly catch-up instead?" When you've had some sleep, some focus on changing your own behaviour will stand you in excellent stead at your next interview, and for the rest of your career. If your supervisor's pattern doesn't change in response to feedback, you will know that you really are dealing with a bully, and should consider taking formal steps, including raising the issue with human resources.

Your focus needs to be on repairing your relationship with your supervisor and, failing that, building a good case for interview about your own professional response in a difficult situation. That story needs to end after, and not before, you have put your concerns to your supervisor. Anecdotes about how you managed a challenging boss can be job-winners – while (and you've said this yourself) complaints about what a bully your last boss was will put your panel offside immediately. Good luck.

Jacqueline Jago is a certified executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting. Send your questions to counsel@canberratimes.com.au.