When Fearful Bosses Become Demanding

Turn Fear Into Fortitude

Posted Jul 24, 2009

If you've noticed that your overloaded Inbox is crashing your computer by 9:30 a.m. with your boss's requests, you might have a demanding Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT) on your hands. If you hardly remember your home address or your dog, Fido ...ditto. At offices across the country, fear still looms, as the economy continues to be volatile. In bosses, as in toddlers, this often results in demanding behavior. Just as young children believe they're the center of the universe, a fearful TOT may become a bottomless pit of unrealistic expectations. However, you CAN take the fear around you - and let it bring out the fortitude in you.

When an already apprehensive manager feels an increasing loss of control, it can trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy as things spin out of control. Justifiable anxieties grow into additional self-manufactured, irrational fears. An emotionally overloaded or paranoid TOT can leave more than a trail of broken toys in his wake. Given a TOT's position of authority, the livelihoods of real people are at stake.

Dampening down fears and reshaping demands into workable tasks will help you regain your power at work, while creating dividends for everyone. When your boss comes blustering by to check on those sunrise e-mails, it's time to diplomatically "stop your TOT" in a way that's productive for both of you. Here are some tips that help you take workplace fear into your personal fortitude:

Manage expectations: If your child thinks that just because you took her to the theme park on Saturday, every weekend will be another replica of that Saturday, you're headed for trouble. Respond to assignments with realistic estimates of how long it will take and what you'll need to complete them. Having regular meetings with your manager will help you bring realism to the world you and your boss live in.

Be the voice of reason: Buttress your TOT's confidence with praise and reassurance. Deflect excessive "what if" thinking that can sap productivity. Shower him with useful facts and information. "Did you realize that we just last week won the X account and have the number one standing in the Y marketplace?"

Present choices: You only have so many hours in a day to work, not to mention, "have a life." So give your boss choices on the priority of assignments. Your child may want to go to the park, toy store and Jenny's all in two hours, but it's up to you to present doable options: "Boss, I can work on the new project now and put aside everything else until later this afternoon. Which is more important to you?"

Stay in the present: By focusing on today's concerns and avoiding the focus on long term insecurities, you can keep energies tuned to the here and now. Be on the lookout for events that are likely to trigger new fears - and prepare her for them in advance. And don't stoke the flame with five to 10-year plans that examine every possible catastrophe, following your TOT's cue.

Reinforce good practices: Reward reasonable expectations and communications with gratitude and reinforcement. Your boss will appreciate your thoughtfulness when you notice the good, and over time, the feedback will help improve her management style.

Show empathy: Your TOT may be under a lot of pressure, even if some of it is self-inflicted. Demanding and critical comments shouldn't be taken personally, but if the work itself needs improvement, take heed. Proactively help to solve problem areas before small issues become major problems.

Handling a demanding boss may well be like parenting a fearful child in disguise. A child who's fallen off a bicycle for the first time will look at you to see if he should keep on screaming. Screech back in horror and the howl-fest will continue. Calmly state, "Oh, look at that, you fell off. Go ahead and try again" - and the scene will have an entirely different outcome.

With a fearful manager, you can help set the tone for a win-win collaboration, and your increased empowerment. Start by letting your rattled boss rattle off his demands. Then in measured tones, suggest rational solutions. You can turn your boss's fear into your increased fortitude.