When TOTs Run the Office

Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant

Posted Jun 17, 2009

We’ve all seen it at some point in our working lives – an office environment that at times resembles an out-of-control schoolyard, with bad bosses playing sandbox politics or throwing outright tantrums.

Tirades, neediness, demanding and stubborn behavior are all telltale signs of a “Terrible Office Tyrant”, or what I call a “TOT”. TOTs are bosses who have trouble moderating their power and consequently act like small children or toddlers, especially when under stress. The Terrible Twos are far less endearing in the corner office, though. So many people are affected in terms of productivity and fear of job loss each day.

While exploring this parallel and preparing for my book, Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant™: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job (John Wiley), I conducted extensive research over seven years. I interviewed scores of psychologists and psychiatrists; nearly 100 workers on videotape; commissioned national independent research studies over a four year period with thousands of respondents; and listened while countless people offered personal anecdotes from the hilarious to the astonishing.

I realized that employees are being devoured by the TOT distraction daily – and they need to know that they can “manage up”: be the voice of reason, and forge ahead successfully in their careers—in spite of tyrants in their midst. It’s paradoxical that bosses hold a “parental figure” role – yet can be so unsure about what to do with significant power – like their much younger counterparts whose screams and whines can push any parent to the edge of insanity. But how many courses were offered in college on “How to be a Great Boss?” – not to mention, “How to Control Your Temper as the Boss?”

A TOT Is Born

After leaving executive life in the employment field, where I studied workplace behavior, I took a step back. I had flashes of my life as a young woman babysitting; all my years in the corporate world and stories related to me; my personal observations from employment studies; and of being a mom who had the normal challenges of raising two boys. It became as clear as day. The skills I used around children always came in handy in the office, whether it was calming TOTs, or stopping them from being distracted, fickle, whiny, needy, stubborn or demanding.

I knew I had to help people with tips on dealing with both the “bratty” variety, as well as “little lost lamb” behavior (such as endless questioning and moodiness). I realized that I had to do it with humor, because that was always a valuable technique. Humor is “the great diffuser,” whether the fuse is about to blow down the candy aisle or the cubicle aisle.

Look Behind the Façade

It can be hard to spot a TOT at first. Terrible Office Tyrants don’t leave chocolate smears on the office walls. But ultimately patterns emerge…because “to TOT is human.” The acronym was intended to counter the harshness of “tyrant.” Behind the façade and all the blustering is often a fearful child who is trying to cope with pressures and orders from above, personal life, or just the demands of the day. I believe that whether we’re two or 52, we all have the same core human instincts, needs and fears. (I can now see some of my own TOT moments in HD.)

It’s not enough to simply avoid Jekyll and Hyde-like managers when they’re in “monster mode.” A more constructive tactic is to find out the underlying reasons for their less than agreeable personality traits – and then manage your boss’s behavior.

It’s incumbent upon employees to set limits to bad behavior and reinforce the good (remember “good attention and bad attention” when disciplining children or observing it?) If there’s something in it for the boss, as in any relationship, there will be change. If all reasonable attempts are made to improve a situation, and it’s still intolerable, it’s time to look elsewhere. P.S. If, as a manager, you catch yourself in TOTdom, remember to recover from your actions and humanize your workplace.

Based on my experience and our commissioned research (scroll studies), TOT behavior is a self-sustaining trigger of fear and mistrust in the workplace. Yet even in good times, Terrible Office Tyrants act out, too, because there is so much unwieldy business to manage. Yes, the traits are timeless, but employees can “tame their TOTs.” Similarly, CEOs and senior business leaders can “TOT-proof their companies”, and make their environment safe for success. I look forward to further discussions on this topic and encourage you to share your own experiences with TOTs in the workplace!