Anyone who has ever worked for a dictator-manager has a few scars to show for the experience.

And no, I’m not talking about that class of abusers and harassers gaining their just dues in the global media these days. If you work for one of those characters, take action through proper channels. Run if needed.

Rather, I’m describing the individuals who rule their fiefdoms with velvet gloves, never crossing lines that merit prosecution.

They are stern, strong rulers, sometimes benevolent dictators, but dictators nonetheless. You live, work, and play by their rules, or you’re punished or banished.

Bob Sutton has done a masterful job writing about a certain evil breed of these characters in his colorfully named “[email protected]@hole” books. While I suspect the individuals I’m describing merit nomination in that category, some are just strong and demanding, without the requisite level of evilness to walk away with an [email protected]@hole award.

If you find yourself working for a dictator masquerading as a manager and unable to immediately pick up your toys and play somewhere else, there are some survival tactics that make your stay a bit more bearable.

I’ve selected a few approaches for you to put to work in easing the burden just a bit. Use them to maintain sanity while you are a resident of the dictator’s domain. Don’t compromise ethics or principles, and just don’t do anything stupid to jeopardize your position. The goal is to live to play another day under better circumstances.

4 Survival Tactics When Working for a Dictator-Manager:

1. The Loyalty Issue

For some dictators I’ve known, loyalty trumps competence every day of the week. These individuals are often extraordinarily sensitive and unforgiving to lapses in loyalty. Unfortunately, even mostly innocent comments or conversations can be viewed as lapses.

Avoid airing anything that sounds like dirty departmental laundry to colleagues in other groups. Word travels fast, and you don’t want to be identified as disloyal because of seemingly harmless comments or conversations.

Don’t hide, just don’t invite an air-strike on yourself.

Keep your cross-functional conversations positive and matter of fact. Choosing not to complain about your boss is smart in any circumstance and essential for survival when working for a dictator as manager.

Make certain to frame all conversations in the context of better supporting the customer, streamlining processes, or discussing new approaches.

Best bet: share your need to check-in with someone from another group with the boss or a trusted lieutenant. Describe the agenda. Ensure your ideas are in alignment with your boss’s, and then report back on outcomes.

2. Keep Your Friends Close and Your Dictator-Manager:

These my-way or the highway types in power gained their positions by getting things done.

They respect others who do the same.

Remember, everyone works for someone.

Your dictator manager needs to hit targets, complete projects, and move the corporate agenda forward. By aligning and placing your energies behind one of those critical issues, you effectively neutralize some of the dictator’s power and even gain her support.

Take time to tune-in to the business priorities of your dictator-manager and seize one that aligns with your strengths and values as your cause.

Of course, if your results fall short, we all know what happens to people who disappoint dictators.

3. Lean-in to the Dictator’s World—Become an Advisor

This tactic builds on the prior one and takes courage.

Instead of avoiding the dictator, you lean-in and strive to offer counsel. Just be careful with the style of counsel you provide.

One individual working for a dictator-manager went out of her way to share ideas that matched and supported the manager’s priorities. They were all ideas that were pro-business, and they just happened to be closely aligned with the manager’s big issues and headaches. She was leveraging the reality that most dictators are lonely and are looking for ideas that support their visions.

Another recognized the manager’s need to talk. Yes, some people think and learn as they talk. The employee perceived the manager was hungry to be listened to and made himself available through innocent questions that spawned long monologues. The dictator-manager wasn’t looking for feedback or advice; he just wanted someone or something who would listen without talking. It could have been a stuffed animal. As a result, the employee gained the trust of the dictator and remained outside the lines of fire.

4. Run a Regular Systems Check on Your Values

Dictatorial leadership styles breed all types of dysfunctional behaviors in the people surrounding the dictator.

People go out of their way to curry favor, and in the process, they cross ethical boundaries.

It’s imperative for all of us to maintain our moral standards and not challenge our values simply as a perceived survival tactic.

One executive I encountered, encouraged his team members to create organizational noise about the “incompetence” of other functions as a tool for keeping the spotlight off of his own team’s shortcomings. (OK, this guy was a bonafide [email protected]@hole.)

Regardless of circumstances, run a regular systems check on your values and make certain you aren’t compromising anything. Remember, rationalizing one mild step over a gray line makes it easier to rationalize subsequent steps.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I get that none of the above feels great. These are sanity and soul-saving survival tactics. They are pragmatic, and to be applied in those circumstances where we work for individuals who demand our loyalty.

Remember, your goal is to live, learn, and play another day under a more constructive and liberating regime. Sometimes, we need to survive before we thrive.

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