Liz Ryan: The Workplace
Avoid Bad-Boss Confrontations
I've been at my job in IT project management for four years and am doing pretty well there, both results-wise and quality-of-work-life-wise. I like everything about my job except the new manager who took over our group in February. We can call him Dan. He is the stereotypical blowhard, autocratic manager who has all the answers—when in fact he knows nothing. And frankly he's pretty hard to take.
Dan is such a poor manager, and says such outrageous, obnoxious things to the staff on a regular basis, that we half expect Ashton Kutcher to jump out from behind the drapes with a video camera every time Dan holds a staff meeting. He's way over his head in the job, rude to his employees, and arrogant to boot. For some reason, although Dan bothers the heck out of me, I'm pretty good at letting his crazy interjections and self-aggrandizing remarks brush past me. My colleague and friend, Amy, is not as mellow about the situation and often confronts Dan directly. I completely see where she is coming from, but I don't see the benefit of going toe-to-toe with the boss, either. Amy feels like I'm not supporting her because I button my lip whenever she and Dan get into an argument. I tell her: "You can't fight City Hall." And anyway, Dan is so bad at his job that the generally competent leaders in our company are bound to move him out of the role one of these days.
I see the tension level rising rapidly enough that I could see Amy getting written up for insubordination or even getting fired, and although I'm very sympathetic, I don't think it's appropriate for me to go to bat for her. I told her I was going to write to you, and both of us are interested in your reply. What's the best way to deal with a situation like this, for Amy and for me?
It sounds as though you've been blessed with a more temperate nature than Amy has, and having worked for a Dan or two myself, I can see both sides of the issue. I can see all three sides, in fact. From Dan's standpoint, Amy is disrespectful and a threat to his authority. Sadly, but predictably, he doesn't see his own shortcomings. He can't be expected to wake up one morning, magically see himself through someone else's eyes, realize the error of his managerial ways, and overhaul his leadership style on the spot. That isn't going to happen. Your task is to decide how to manage through this tough situation until Dan is out of the picture or until you yourself fly the coop. Amy's task is to quickly figure out how to get a bit of Zen perspective on the bad-boss situation that will allow her to be more sanguine and more productive until things improve.
Your situation is not urgent, but hers is. If she doesn't change her outlook soon and dramatically, she's likely to get fired. As sympathetic as I'd be if I heard that Amy had been "separated from the payroll" for being lippy to her manager, I wouldn't be surprised. Most of us can only take so much, and this Dan of yours doesn't sound like the Gandhi of IT managers.
One way to avoid confrontations with a Dan-type boss is to think: "What's in my long-term best interest?" It is frustrating to work among idiots and jerks—sorry, I meant to say "less than fully qualified and less than humble colleagues"—but it's part of life, and it serves all of us to learn some coping skills to use in those situations. Can Amy learn to hear Dan spout off, think to herself "La, la, there goes Dan again," count to 10, and say nothing? If she stops to think "If I handle this situation well, Dan will hang himself, and I'll have a new, more suitable manager in a month or two," she may be able to learn the art of smiling a Cheshire Cat smile and keeping mum. In fact, she may become very good at it. I hope she can. It would be very silly to get fired by a guy who sounds as if he's an inch away from being removed from the job himself.
A good friend of mine had a hateful boss once, and she fought him tooth and nail. A weekly staff meeting didn't go by that didn't feature the two of them arguing like cats and dogs. "Megan," I said, "he is the boss. This is going to end badly." Megan kept tilting at windmills. One day, Megan was fired. The next day, her awful boss himself was fired. And guess what? No one called Megan to offer her the job back. The boss was a loser, no doubt, but the company's view was that putting up with losers can sometimes be part of the job description. Megan sacrificed a great job over a temporary, frustrating managerial conflict. I encourage Amy to take the long view and find a way to reduce the conflict level, for her own sake as well as the department's.
Most companies are reasonably good at rooting out atrocious managers, but they are notoriously slow about it, too. In my experience I've seen employers take 6, 9, or 12 months to move out people who were clearly out of their depth in leadership jobs. That's because they tend to cross every "t" and dot every "i" when they endeavor to remove a manager from his position. I hope Amy can see that unless headhunters are calling her with offers left and right, she's better off brewing some green tea and chilling while Dan digs his own professional grave. He doesn't need her help.
As for you, I'd say your policy so far is absolutely the right one. You can be a sympathetic ear to Amy, and you can reinforce her efforts to stop letting Dan push her buttons. If she makes a plan to stop her cage matches with Dan, you can help her keep that commitment. For starters, I'd show her this story. My message to Amy: "Dear Amy, do not trifle with the Dans of the world! You are too smart and too capable to waste your time, your mental and emotional energy, and your breath on the likes of him."