The early days of 2017 seem like a perfect time to talk about bad leaders and ways to survive them. I’m not exactly sure why this thought came to me, but what the heck — somehow it just feels appropriate.
“Survive,” by the way, doesn’t mean beating bad leaders at their own games. That just turns you into one of them. Survive means maintaining your dignity and professionalism while also succeeding … or at least not failing … in the environment bad leaders create.
As my graduate training was in evolutionary biology, we’ll make this a bestiary — a catalog of unfortunate critters. We’ll start off with …
Howler monkeys are managers who holler a lot. There are two subspecies, Toddlers and Actors.
Toddlers throw tantrums whenever something doesn’t go their way. Why? Because … drumroll … it works. They bellow, and everyone in the vicinity scurries around, doing whatever they can to stop the screaming.
Toddlers learned tantrums work at about the same age they learned to speak. Nothing since then caused them to unlearn the behavior. Actors, in contrast, only pretend to lose their tempers. They learned how well screaming works by watching Toddlers in action, concluding that, as the philosopher said, ’tis better to give than to receive.
Howlers have three goals: To deflect responsibility for whatever happens to have gone wrong; to provoke behavior they can use against you later; and to establish their position in the organizational pecking order … the unofficial organizational chart that describes who kisses who, in what order, and where.
When dealing with a Howler, your worst course of action is to lose your own temper in return. Do this and you lose, because yelling is like the Highlander — there can be only one, and the Howler got there first.
Instead, calmly and deliberately walk away. As you gather your papers and stand up to depart, say something like, “Let me know when you’re ready to have a businesslike conversation and we’ll continue this discussion.”
Unless, that is, you report to the Howler. If you do:
- Master the art of blandness. That is, ignore the Howler’s volume, tone, and pulsing forehead artery, and pay attention only to the content. Control your own body language, repeating to yourself, over and over, “I’m relaxed, professional, and unimpressed.”
To help you keep your cool, take notes ostentatiously, which emphasizes the close attention you’re paying to the serious issues the Howler is raising with such force and sincerity.
- Take control at the optimal moment. What follows is for group situations. You’ll need equivalent tactics when you find yourself on the receiving end of one-on-one screaming. To take control:
When, and not until the Howler starts to repeat the same serious and important issues, raise your hand … not in the manner of a child who wants the teacher’s attention, but palm forward, like a crossing guard who needs the pedestrian on the other side of the intersection to stop.
When you have the Howler’s attention, apologize for interrupting, then say something like, “If I understand correctly, we have three issues that need our immediate attention.” Stand up, move to the whiteboard, and write them down from your notes as you list them.
Then continue, “I have suggestions for the first two (if you do) — I think we should xxx. For the last, does anyone else have any thoughts on how we should deal with this?”
- Document every episode as thoroughly as you can. Don’t plan on doing anything with it. But Howlers are often pretty good at scapegoating too, so you might need documentation if you find yourself on the receiving end of an unearned disciplinary action.
- Speaking of which, redirect any and all attempts to assign blame by overtly taking it: “What’s our goal right now? If we need someone to take the blame, I’m happy to do this. Now … what do we need to do fix the problem and prevent it from recurring?”
But mostly, leave. Focus your energy on finding a different job with a better manager. Life, not to mention your career, is too short. The longer you live around Howler Monkeys, the more being howled at becomes your normal — you’ll turn into the sort of employee you wouldn’t hire; dispirited, unmotivated, apathetic, and with an ingrained habit of keeping your head down in the Whac-A-Mole game of organizational dynamics.
Or, even worse, you’ll become an Actor — you’ll have learned to lose your temper for fun and profit.
* * *
If this week is an indicator, it appears I’ll need a whole week’s worth of space for each bad leadership critter.
You’re invited to contribute. What I’d like from you are:
- Species: A type of bad leader or manager, associated with an unpleasant creature, whether alive, extinct, or mythical. I’ll also consider unpleasant ecosystems if you come up with a nasty organization type instead.
- Root Cause: What you think leads to the character flaws you’re describing.
- Solution: What, in your personal experience, works to help an employee survive unscathed and without being mutated in the process.
- Permission: This includes permission to give you credit for the idea, if you’d like that, or instructions not to. It also includes permission to use your ideas intact, or to modify both your thoughts and your writing as I see fit. Please don’t take offense if I do. Even if I like your writing that doesn’t mean it fits KJR. And if I disagree with your thinking … well, my name will be on the final result. I’ll do my best to give proper credit without burdening your good name with my opinions.