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9 Time-Honored Tips for Taming Unruly Bosses

When good parenting skills help at work.

“Nooo! That’s not how I like it. You did it wrong!” “But you said you wanted…”

Anyone who’s been around young children will recognize that battle. Unfortunately, so do many workers struggling with super-sized infants or tots running amok at work, aka bad bosses.

When we think of analogies between family and workplace dynamics, it’s usually the boss who’s the authority figure. But enter the Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT), and suddenly it’s the subordinate that must assume the leadership role; the one who manages up (without letting on, of course). I also refer to this as "parenting up without patronizing."

Lynn Taylor Consulting
Source: Lynn Taylor Consulting

Whether you’re a parent or have simply witnessed one in action, you know that there are discipline approaches that work, and those that don’t. And since TOTs often resemble their much younger namesakes behaviorally, it’s not so surprising that those same practices work when managing a difficult boss or coworker.

Parents inherently know that if they allow their kids to get away with bad behavior once, the actions will be repeated. The outcome is not quite as forgiving when you let things slide with a manager. If a boss exhibits ongoing poor behavior, such as belittling you or being territorial, it can mean prolonged periods of distress.

Here are some time-honored parental strategies that can help anyone manage up effectively:

Stay calm. Don’t get caught up in your manager’s dramatic behavior or things will escalate. If your boss is on the floor throwing a tantrum (okay, maybe not literally), what should you do? Now is the time to stay even-keeled, the way skilled parents instinctively do during a child’s meltdown.

Anticipate problems. Children like routine; they want to know what to expect and when, and the same is true with managers. If you have a fickle boss, set up a process for your projects, and give micro-managers plenty of updates. Give notice, e.g., a reminder email that you must leave early Thursday, so you’re not inundated with work two minutes before you depart.

Use levity to your advantage. Humor diffuses tension with kids and managers, alike. Maybe your boss is about to lose it over problems with that buggy new app your team is using. You might be able to “jam the system” by saying something like, “I think my first car in high school was more reliable than that app. And I was usually stranded waiting for a tow truck." Use clever humor that is apropos to the situation. You don’t have to become a standup comedian to put people at ease; just be yourself.

Give choices. Avoid asking "yes" or "no" questions. People of all ages like to be given choices and that’s particularly true with a controlling boss. Rather than saying, “Are you okay with holding Maria’s retirement party at The Grill?” try: “Would you rather hold Maria’s retirement party at The Grill, or the XYZ hotel banquet room?"

Offer praise. Who doesn’t want to be told they’re great? Just think of that beaming child who’s earned a sticker for good behavior. If your boss takes the time to thoroughly explain a project to you rather than avoiding you at all costs, reinforce it: “Thanks for preparing me for that discussion yesterday. Your advice really made a difference in closing the deal.” Countering negativity goes a long way with everyone in the workplace.

Model good behavior. Manage up by example. Take an honest look at your behavior to ensure you’re not a TOT. If co-workers race for the exit doors the second they see you’re stressed out, take note. You can’t expect your boss to be calm, cool, and collected if you’re not.

Keep it brief. Young kids have the attention span of…slightly longer than flies. Same for a significant number of managers. Let’s face it, they’re busy. But many are easily distracted, too. B.A.D.D. (Boss Attention Deficit Disorder) just seems to go with the territory. When sharing information, get to the point: quickly and clearly.

Give the full picture. In the same way telling a child, “We may not be able to go to the park today” without offering the full story can lead to a tailspin, so can telling a boss, “We may not meet our financial projections.” When you need to share valuable information, make sure you can provide context and rationale.

Set boundaries. Know what you’re willing to tolerate, and when behavior requires stronger corrective action. For example, if faced with a chronic bully, you may need to join forces with other employees and approach senior management or human resources. If the behavior is untenable or all else fails, it may be time to seek greener pastures.

The next time your boss appears ready to morph into a languid, lifeless lump on the carpet in defiance, resist the temptation to yell, “Time out!” Instead, use the many other proven, parental management tools at your disposal.

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