Why Bad Bosses Act like Toddlers

Why Bad Bosses Act Like Toddlers

Posted Aug 27, 2009

Behavioral problems seem to be running rampant in the office today. When conflicts arise, it can seem as if bad bosses missed Social Skills 101 - reverting to the unruly actions of toddlerhood in a nano-second!

Tirades, neediness, whining and stubborn behavior are all telltale signs of a Terrible Office Tyrant or TOT. They are managers who have trouble modulating their power when under stress - or are just in over their heads unsure of their next wobbly baby step! Unfortunately, exasperated employees cannot reach into their credenzas for a bowl of colorful pacifiers to distribute.

What does makes an otherwise rational adult regress to a TOT?

In my firm's research into the psychodynamics of the workplace, we commissioned independent national studies of thousands of people and conducted hundreds of in-person interviews, including discussions with psychologists and psychiatrists. We found that, in many cases, difficult bosses return to their misbehaving "inner toddler" to handle unwieldy pressures - displaying many of the same outward signs. If you can uncover the underlying reasons for your boss's less than stellar management style, then you can also develop the formula for redirecting your TOT's behavior to the positive.

Here are the 20 core, parallel traits between bad bosses (TOTs) and toddlers, and they fall into two categories: Bratty and Little Lost Lambs.

Bratty Behavior

These are the more aggressive traits that are typically activated when your TOT is operating under stress, has been taught that this behavior will achieve self-serving results, or your boss is fearful of an impending outcome:

1.   Bragging

2.   Bullying
3.   Demanding

4.   Ignoring

5.   Impulsiveness

6.   Lying
7.   Self-Centeredness

8.   Stubbornness

9.   Tantrums

10. Territorialism

11. Whining

Little Lost Lambs

These traits are often born out of incompetence or general fear of inadequacy. While they seem benign, these boss behaviors can be just as irritating - and equally as unproductive in the workplace.

12.  Endless Questioning

13.  Fantasy World

14.  Fickleness

15.  Helplessness

16.  Irrational Fears

17.  Forgetfulness

18.  Mood Swings
19.  Neediness

20.  Short Attention Spans

Although there are lots of office horror stories about each of these 20 traits, the meltdown variety is by far the most familiar. It seems strange that a fully-grown adult can get so rattled that he or she can almost be seen ...shaking a rattle!

Most tantrums don't involve objects being thrown across the room. They're more polished and subversive, but nonetheless hurtful and distracting.

Why does the boss do this? Because sometimes TOTs and toddlers cannot assert their power and independence. The TOT and tyke occasionally find that their ability to master the world is limited, as it is with most mortal beings. This revelation, on top of their inability to communicate clearly in the moment, makes them frustrated and furious. The tantrum-throwing boss often feels trapped or needs your attention: "Mommy, Daddy, look at what happened! Waaaaah!" He may be angry about something not even related to you. He often doesn't realize he is acting like a child. (P.S. We can all fall prey to a TOT moment, because "to TOT is human." We just have to keep it in check.)

In fact, both TOTs and toddlers have little sense of their impact on others. They have few inhibitions, an inability to soothe themselves, and limited awareness that they're even erupting into an infantile rage. Often, within minutes or hours, they can forget it ever happened! Always remember that behind your boss's emotional crash, there is really a toddler trapped inside who wants your time and attention. So always have a "pacifier" ready, such as: "That will be the first thing on my ‘to do' list tomorrow."

Each day, you have the opportunity to proactively manage the "toddlers" in your office by using humor, common sense, rational thinking, and by setting limits to bad behavior. If you choose not to learn effective coping techniques, then you will be an emotional punching bag for your boss (and/or co-workers).

You can reinforce the positive and discourage the negative because YOU have leverage: your skills and contributions. You are the parent with the proverbial cookie jar when it comes to managing a TOT. By adopting a positive, professional approach at work, you will contribute to your own career advancement with transferable skills, while you create a more manageable workplace for others.

I would welcome your comments on which traits you face most often, and will be delving further into these workplace behaviors and their solutions in future blogs.