Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant

How to manage childish boss behavior and thrive in your job

Taming a Tough Boss without Losing Your Job

How to model good behavior for a bad leader.

If you're having trouble with your boss during these tough times, the deepest postwar recession to date, you're not alone. Let's face it - with unemployment hovering at 9.5 percent, even angelic bosses can be jumpy at best, as they must invariably be pondering their own fate.

The problem is when jumpy turns into angry, stubborn or impatient - and you're in the line of fire. You want to stand your ground, but you really like having a paycheck right now.

Most of the questions I get from employees today have to do with how they can cope with all the fear and drama in the office - because leaving is not an option. Worst of all, the Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT) boss knows it. Sometimes a tried and true TOT flaunts it, as if to say, "You're lucky I gave you one of my chocolate chip cookies (a paycheck) today."

This is the perfect storm for pent up anger: feeling powerless with an authority figure on whom your livelihood depends - and not having the ability to communicate those feelings. So how do you walk that fine line and keep your sanity?

It may be time to give your boss a one-minute "Time-Off"!

Did you think it said "Time-Out?" There is actually a place for "workplace timeouts" - instances when you should try to diplomatically isolate yourself from your boss, such as during a TOT tantrum. But when bosses are just plain irritable during times of downsizing, try giving them a brief, professional form of ... school recess. Do it with empathy, good listening skills, or dare I say, levity.

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This is really not meant to be patronizing. What I mean is, when tension rises, your first thought should be, "How can I 'jam the system' - and alter the dynamics?" Once acquired, it is a rare and valuable skill that will always set you apart.

Putting "Time-Off" to the Test

His e-mail says: "I can't talk this morning. I'm putting out 3 fires, am still tied up, but could talk for 5 minutes at 5:00 ...if we NEED to."

Many dutiful employees go into Auto-Response mode and think to themselves, "Well, yeah, I'll take them, or I may never get another chance!" The employee, in a driven mode, hurriedly answers back: "Yes, I'll come by at 5. Thanks." Good "carpe diem" response, right? Not really.

Your manager dedicated half of the e-mail pleading for ...empathy and understanding! People want to connect with others on a human level and rarely have time to do so, especially in today's crunch. This is even less common to get from subordinates. Workers are focused on meeting their boss's deadlines, and feel it's best to remain stoic than make a misstep in this job climate.

Nevertheless, a better response might be: "Sorry about that. We can definitely meet tomorrow, and thanks for the explanation (...I promise not to add fuel to the blazes!)" And if you're on friendlier terms, you might even venture: "(p.s. I'll bring a hose!)" The point is, if you look for opportunities to allay anxiety, you'll move events in your favor.

Too often at work, we're not supposed to be real people - the office is dehumanized. We're programmed to follow our script and daily routine; do our job dutifully; and deliver a work product quickly to our all-knowing boss. Yet a quick, lighthearted reply showing genuine empathy is often the perfect antidote - allowing a boss to let her guard down during a chaotic day. Over time, your manager will be less likely to put up barriers, too.

We tend to forget that a boss would rather be laying flat on a park bench - or on a private warm beach somewhere listening to an iPod - than trimming budgets and preparing P & mainly "L" statements. There's no better time than now to show understanding, lightheartedness and calm.

These skills may well be tantamount to many others needed to make it to the top in corporate America. If used correctly, they will help to "recession-proof" your job as you tame a difficult, harried boss.

Diffuse and Disarm

When you use humor wisely in an e-mail, for example (I call humor the "great diffuser"), you are much more likely to get a response back, maybe a couple of replies within minutes. You may find that without it, you would have never even received two e-mail responses in the same week from your boss. Also, while some "frown" on a smiley faces, others say it softens sensitive e-mails.

In the scenario described earlier, your manager might appreciate knowing that your project could wait until the next day (if it can), rather than taxing him at 5:00pm. The win-win is that you gave your TOT some slack the day before - and there's this bonus: your project will probably get more attention the following day because he'll be more clear-headed.

Of course, not everyone is receptive to humor or sympathy, and certainly not at all times. And you may work for a boss who requires a heart-to-heart talk with you about how his more egregious actions are affecting your work performance. (If handled diplomatically and there's a benefit for him, you will succeed).

But assuming your tough boss falls within the bell curve, you can consider it your personal challenge with her or anyone with whom you work, to "find the bond" - and humanize the atmosphere around you.

The Reward

This is not an altruistic exercise, but a win-win proposition because you will:

• Neutralize bad behavior
• Model positive interactions
• Establish common, collaborative ground
• Create a better, more humanistic atmosphere
• Allow greater openness to your ideas

Think for a minute about how the top-ranked sales people in America operate, garnering respect and closing a deal. Do they walk into a room with clients and quickly launch into a serious discussion about business? Not for long! They find a common bond, listen, put the client at ease, and often use humor. Similarly, consider these tools for bolstering your position at work, while taming your Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT).

So maybe this wasn't in your job description. But, perhaps it should be.

To tame a tough boss and avoid losing your job, you don't need a whip, protective gear or a tent in which to hide. You may just need to call a short Time-Off for TOT recess.

Lynn Taylor is a workplace expert specializing in boss and employee dynamics; she is the author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant

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