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My boss was a toxic mess who should have been fired within months of being hired.

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Everyone knew she was wrong for the job, not fit to be managing people, and way in over her head, yet she continued for over 2 years wasting everyone’s time and energy and poisoning the workplace. Why are large organizations so useless at dealing with real problems in the workplace? What can I do next time this happens?

~ Bill


Wouldn’t it be nice if we had those movie moments at work where someone just stood up in the middle of a meeting and declared the obvious? “She’s killing this place! Can’t you all see!?” But no, not with the grown-ups in the room.

Too bad it’s not like in the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love where grade 8 Robbie Weaver gets on his feet at least three times making unabashed declarations, including this final throwdown as class valedictorian:

“All my life I wanted to grow up. I wanted to grow older so people would take me seriously. It all sounded so good to me. Growing up, getting a job, getting married. But... It's all a scam. And love? That's the biggest scam of all.”

And with that, Robbie catalyzes action that drives his truly in-love but separated parents Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore back together. And they all live happily ever after.

Ahh, good old drama. It seems from the modern romantic comedy to soliloquies of Shakespeare and the monologues of drama students auditioning for a spot in theater school to single great lines like “Show me the money,” the public utterances of drama do big things to affect the story.

Cut to real life: the unhappy workplace, a bad marriage, or your best friend who’s a slob and a pack rat. Nobody says anything. Until it’s too late and somebody dies, or every good employee quits. Call it an adult version of selective mutism, a tendency to stay silent at certain times, a scam, or whatever, but I would suggest that it’s just bad storytelling. It seems there’s plenty of evidence of it in our personal lives, in our institutions, and just about everywhere we trod. For me, this narrative deficit is a peculiar state of affairs.

It’s odd considering philosophers like Yuval Harari reckon homo sapiens ascended the food chain by our ability to share realities and experiences outside our own, whether fictitious or real. We pay big bucks to cry, become enraged, laugh, and get carried away by the razzle-dazzle of great stories. This narrative imperative coupled with imagination makes us a force to reckon with. That is until the lights come up and illuminate what I perceive to be a paradox in our story-jonesing nature.

When I was in the trenches of film professorship, I discovered some evidence of a contradiction. It goes like this: Most humans understand and respond to stories but only a handful can take intentional action to affect them. For example, if you teach Screenwriting 101 to thirty students and ask them to write a simple short script using the principles outlined in the traditional Hollywood paradigm of three-act structure, only five of them will produce something that tries to follow the rules. Now, I’m not talking about fancy writing, just a simple story with a protagonist who wants something and tries to do something about it. That’s it.

Yup, we get the story we’re in or experiencing yet we’re staggeringly inept at making new plot points that bring us closer to the goal of some sort of betterment. Essentially, our story-making skills are bereft. Perhaps as Robbie Weaver suggests in Crazy, Stupid, Love it’s all a scam. Or we’re only really just good at being the audience, and a passive one at that.

So, what to do? Well, I think, if we extend the life-as-a-movie metaphor, we have to stand up from our seats and take action. To do this we have to become better writers, directors, and actors of our own drama. Part narrative therapy, part awareness with a dose of thinking like a filmmaker, the idea here is to externalize the problem, untangle ourselves from the issue, and take some action or make some declarations that move the story forward.

For you Bill and the workplace toxic boss story, there’s the obvious: take intentional action within the rules and norms of the corporate bureaucracy. This might look like going to HR or the big boss with a formal complaint, a strategy of stepping back from your own internal issues and dropping in like Tom Cruise in the wire heist scene of Mission Impossible. This is the adult who tries to undo the scamming with all the promise that imagination and morally grounded stories have taught them throughout their life. This is you, the hero, who feels that a third act is imminent, and you are poised to commit.

Now, I understand if you’re not feeling like a hero Bill, or somewhat commitment-phobic. That’s okay because the next best thing is to be a good supporting cast member. Here, action can be replaced by quiet protest or declarations amongst peers. In its simplest form, this verbal action is called gossip– good old gossip, perhaps the progenitor of our storytelling ways. When we gossip, we don’t bring home the anxiety of action that comes from direct confrontation, instead, we effectively externalize the problem and stay back at a safe distance. Gossip is also a great story-limiting device for the villain in so much that the bad actors will rarely hear any of what’s said about them, which keeps their ability to react and take action on what’s being said impossible. If they don’t hear it, they can’t fight it or adjust to it. So, the next meeting you're in, keep the whisper-gossip rolling, eventually it will leak into the main story with effect.

I realize this advice might come off as simplistic or obvious. While there’s nothing earth-shattering about going to HR or having colorful conversations off the record, I will argue that simplicity is foundational to most great stories. It is also an essential attitude good writers, directors, and stars have when they develop and make drama we respond to. The attitude is illustrated by the story's way of always cutting forward, of not dwelling on the past, and wrapping ourselves in too much thinking.

Watch Crazy, Stupid, Love, and take note of Robbie Weaver, the grade 8 hero speaking up. Whether a very public proclamation of love to the babysitter he will never get, or the plain-spoken rebuke lobbed at Kevin Bacon, the man who breaks up his parent’s marriage, or his final denunciation of true love in the third act, his candid words are story-making. They address and affect the real problems in his life and change comes. Sure, he’s got screenwriter Dan Fogelman (creator of This is Us) writing the way forward. But we are all just as capable.

Bill, it’s not screenwriting class this life we’re living, there is no blank page. The plot is well on its way, the characters perfectly drawn, the location nailed down. Now comes the time to pay a little more attention to those human story-making skills we’ve had baked into our DNA. At least that’s the story I like to tell.

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