Every Tuesday at the Management Excellence blog I share ideas to help those just starting out on their leadership journeys.
Almost every person who’s ever held a managerial position has spent time walking on eggshells around a deliberately difficult employee to avoid inciting a confrontation. I describe these individuals as “Boss Bullies.” They’re particularly fond of first-time managers because their tactics tend to work on these often overwhelmed professionals for a period of time.
These difficult characters are almost all the same. They aggressively assert their disdain for you as the new manager. They do everything possible to show their disapproval of your presence and they expect you to show deference. They know just the right buttons to push to get their way and make your life miserable.
I encountered my first one when I was promoted to a supervisory role after just a few months at my first post-college job. This particular individual made it clear through his words and actions that he wasn’t going to be managed or bothered by some newbie. It worked for him for awhile.
I wasn’t physically frightened of this bully, but I definitely allowed his bullying approach to push me off balance. I either avoided dealing with him directly or, if it was essential, I couched my comments and questions in niceties. I went out of my way to let him know that I wasn’t there to manage him, but that we needed his help. He was smart enough to help, but he definitely let me know every time that I owed him one.
Aside from developing a daily stomachache over having to deal with this character, my approach was visible to everyone on my team. It was a formula for failure on all fronts and it had to change. It did.
While I didn’t have a handy list of the ideas below for dealing with the situation, I very clumsily applied the principles and managed to change the nature of the relationship. In this case, the bully respected my assertion of power and became an acceptable…not exemplary, but acceptable citizen.
Instead of walking on eggshells, stomp on them and solve this problem.
Six Ideas for Clearing Away the Eggshells and Dealing with Boss Bullies:
1. Engage. Your instinct is to avoid and ignore. Do the opposite. You need to cultivate a formal boss-to-employee relationship with the individual in question. Without engaging fairly and professionally with the Boss Bully in question, you have no behavioral basis for feedback, coaching or ultimately, some form of discipline, including termination.
2. Clarify Accountability. The Boss Bully understands that his/her approach results in different standards for accountability compared to the broader population. You need to eliminate any opportunity for a double standard by clarifying the individual’s responsibility for results and ensuring that the accountability is upheld. One manager I coached used post-project performance evaluations from team members and the project manager to facilitate discussions on this difficult individual’s interpersonal approach, attitude and other dysfunctional The Boss Bully must understand what they are accountable for in terms of both results and workplace behaviors.
3. Observe Often, Reinforce Positives and Tackle Negatives Immediately. The best way to manage this situation is to observe the individual’s work with others as much as possible and offer clear, specific behavioral feedback. If the bully is a mostly an individual contributor without much team involvement, it’s all on your shoulders to engage often enough to offer feedback. Tackle performance issues immediately and provide positive feedback as long as it is merited.
4. Warning! Don’t Apologize or Attempt to Praise Your Way Forward. It takes time for some managers to overcome their fear of Boss Bullies, and those initial steps to engage are awkward and even frightening for some. Beware the tendency to engage by apologizing for your intrusion, and resist the urge to offer positive praise for behaviors that simply meet the standards that everyone else is accountable for. You weaken your case with the Boss Bully when he observes your visible discomfort and extraordinary efforts to placate him.
5. Build on Progress. Your goal should always be for a positive outcome. I’ve observed more than a few Boss Bullies respond positively to appropriate attention and clear feedback. While I’m practicing without a license on this one, I suspect that some behaviors are cries for attention and for respect. Your willingness to pay attention to someone is a powerful motivator. As you observe positive progress, offer appropriate feedback and importantly, strengthen the relationship by extending your trust on workplace responsibilities. Assuming that your trust is rewarded with results, keep it going.
6. Know When to Cut Your Losses. If the attention and feedback don’t work, it’s time for the Boss Bully to go. Work with your manager and H.R. team. Remember that they’ll be looking for clear documentation and proof that you’ve been constructively tackling this issue over a reasonable period of time. Don’t do what so many managers do and that is ignore the topic until you can’t take it anymore and then ask for help. Insure that your boss and H.R. are attuned to the situation immediately and document the process over time.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Too many managers spend too much time walking on eggshells. They either avoid the Boss Bullies or, they deal with them in a manner that reinforces aberrant behaviors. Your only mistake here is to perpetuate the problem. Spend too much time walking on eggshells and you’ll inevitably crush some of them. Fail to resolve this problem and you may be crushing your future prospects with your firm.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.