Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Survive Working for a Jerk

I used to have a boss I detested so much I used to envision her falling down a manhole -- not to kill her, but just injure her enough to put her in the hospital long enough for me to find another job.

After I interviewed Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley for my Gannett column, I realized I wasn't alone in feeling so desperate when it comes to a bad boss. Here's the column:

There is probably nothing that impacts the quality of a job like a boss. Get a good manager, and you like going to work every day. Have a bad boss, and you don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.

If you’ve ever had a bad boss, you often dream of how to get out working for a jerk, ranging from winning the lottery to getting a better job somewhere else. But in this job market? You’re feeling a bit desperate.

“People who are employed right now and work for a bad boss know they can’t immediately leave, because they know jobs are hard to come by,” says Kathi Elster, a business strategist and consultant. “It’s frustrating and depressing for them.”

Elster spends a lot of time listening to people gripe about their bosses, along with her partner in K Squared Enterprises in New York, psychotherapist Katherine Crowley. They recently put together some strategies for helping employees “manage their boss” called “Working for You Isn’t Working for Me,” (Portfolio, $25.95).

“The fact is, you need to manage the relationship,” Crowley says. “People often feel they don’t have power, and feel victimized. But you do have power in this relationship.”

Adds Elster: “The key is to manage yourself to minimize your boss’s behavior on you.”

In the book, Elster and Crowley say there are four keys to improving a bad boss relationship:

1. Detect. You first must identify exactly what it is that “drives you bonkers” in a bad boss, such as verbal attacks or unwarranted criticism. “Once you can detect it,” the authors say, “you can correct it.”

2. Detach. By learning to see the boss for who he is, and educating yourself on how not to react so strongly to the annoying behavior, then you’ll be able to eliminate the stress a bad boss brings to all areas of your life.

3. Depersonalize. No matter how miserable a boss may make you, you’re not the first person to go through this and you must realize “it’s not about you,” the authors say. By understanding the boss’s behavior existed long before you arrived on the scene and that one of the reasons it is so upsetting to you is because it’s triggering your “worst fears,” then you can learn to view the behavior more objectively.

4. Deal: This involves creating a customized plan so that “when the boss acts out, you can defend yourself” and take a more objective and constructive approach to your job and career, they say.

Crowley says that the bad economy may be triggering even more bad boss behavior, as the stress only emphasizes poor management skills. In other words, the over-controlling or “checked out” boss may become even more so, increasing worker tension.

The authors note that employees typically will try to cope with bad boss behavior with tactics that don’t work such as: avoiding the boss at all costs; sulking; becoming full of self-doubt; obsessing about how to handle the boss; wishing for the boss’s demise; gloating over the boss’s behavior; bad-mouthing the boss; confronting an annoying manager; retaliating; or giving the boss the silent treatment.

But employees need to understand that unless they take steps to resolve problems with a boss in a more constructive way, they may continue to have problems no matter where they work, Crowley says.

“People tend to attract recurring situations unless they learn to resolve them,” Crowley says. “Sometimes bad boss behavior feels familiar – it’s like you’re drawn to that kind of person.”

Elster notes that employees should also learn to “take back their power” in a difficult situation by taking care of themselves physically. She recommends coping with the stress by exercising, eating right, spending time with supportive family and friends, doing enjoyable activities and learning relaxation breathing for tough times.

How do you deal with a bad boss?


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Monday, July 13, 2009

Bad Behavior at Work has Bottom-Line Consequences

My last post about the rudeness of hiring managers garnered a lot of attention, and as you can see from the comments, many people are truly bugged by uncivil behavior in the job interview process.

That is certainly a perfect lead-in for this story that I wrote for Gannett on a new book not just talking about the fact that rudeness appears to be an epidemic across all professions, but that it has real bottom-line consequences for business:

For Andrew Rosen, rudeness at work is embodied by the co- workers who “use their outside voices” to talk about everything from celebrity gossip to their jobs.

“I’m all for collaboration, but these people never stop talking, and they talk about everything – loudly,” Rosen says. “I work in a cube-farm environment, so there’s no getting away from it.”

Adding insult to injury, Rosen says these “overly aggressive” workers “seem to be moving up.”

“If I were a boss, I’d take into account that I may not see the day-to-day impact someone has on other people, and I would check that out” before promoting someone, says Rosen, a website manager for a nonprofit in New York City.

That’s exactly what Christine Pearson, a management professor, hopes will happen. She has written a new
book with Christine Porath called “The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It,” (Portfolio, $25.95). While there have been other books talking about the jerks at work, Pearson says this one is aimed at what matters most to businesses – the bottom line.

“It’s almost impossible these days to find a company that doesn’t have a statement about how to treat customers – but they don’t have anything written about how to treat one another,” Pearson says. “What we’re saying is that incivility at work has real bottom line consequences.”

Specifically, the authors argue that by looking at issues such as the hours of productivity lost due to incivility – whether it’s from a worker trying to avoid a rude colleague or workers trying to dodge the number of hours they spend at work – bad behavior has consequences for an entire organization.

At the same time, Pearson says she believes that the struggling economy has added to incivility in the workplace because of growing stress on workers to perform more with less. Also, the increased stress on worker’s personally and professionally leads to greater sensitivity – and that leads to at least the perception by employees that incivility is on the rise, she says.

A whopping 95 percent of those in the workplace say they put up with workplace incivility on a routine basis, and one in five report they suffer through it at least once a week. Some 12 percent of employees get fed up with the whole thing and leave their jobs because of uncivil colleagues.

“Leaders need to understand that incivility can run rampant if they don’t do anything,” says
Pearson, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.. “But the good news is that there are things organizations can do.”

Specifically, Pearson and Porath suggest a no excuse, “zero tolerance” policy for incivility, with rude instigators weeded out and tossed out. Further, they say leaders must not only teach civility, they must show they walk the talk by not promoting or rewarding those who don’t practice what the company preaches.

“There are routine offenders who make people believe that they’re getting ahead because of their incivility. Some others may start looking up to them, and then they start behaving the same way,” Pearson says. “What we’re saying is that it’s going to cost you millions of dollars if you let that happen.”

While Pearson says about 60 percent of incivility comes from upper ranks abusing those in the lower tiers of an organization, rudeness really has no boundaries and can happen at even the lower ranks – such as loudness and lack of respect for another’s work space.

One of the biggest issues may be that those with the objectionable behavior may not recognize their own rudeness. Pearson says she’s already had inquiries on how to send the book to people anonymously.

“There’s no question that this phenomenon is running rampant and hurting teams and organizations. When we started researching this subject, there was an immediate resonance from people. Everyone seemed to have a story,” she says. “Something needs to be done, and that’s why we knew that in order to get the attention of the people who can make a difference we had to link it to the bottom line.”

How has incivility impacted you at work and does your workplace do anything to stop it?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Bully at Work

I remember being the target of a bully when I was in elementary school. I remember everything about the girl...her name, how she used to catch me on the playground when I was jumping rope and make her nasty comments to me.

I can recall with equal clarity the time I was bullied on the job. I remember the continual stress of facing the man every day, the pitying looks from co-workers, the fact that I eventually left the job because I couldn't stand it any more.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvick, an assistant professor of communication at the University of New Mexico and an expert on workplace bullying, says my recollections and feelings about being bullied are typical of others who have had similar experiences.
"It can remain really fresh in a person's mind for a long, long time," she says. "It's something you don't forget."

Further, she notes that workplace bullying is difficult to cope with "because our identities are inextricably linked to what we do," and bullies are striking at the heart of who we believe ourselves to be.

In her study of workplace bullying, Lutgen-Sandvick found that while bullying can take place anywhere, certain professions seem to have more incidents of the behavior. Included: government/public administration, health care and high-end restaurants.

According to research, both men and women can be bullies. “Bullying is a silent epidemic that affects one in six workers,” says Gary Namie, a workplace-bullying expert. “It is witnessed by nearly 80 percent of workers who don’t do anything about it. It’s a dirty little secret.”

Who is most likely to become the target of a bully? Namie says targets often have a strong sense of equity, justice and integrity and a very strong belief in what they believe to be right and wrong. Bullies are the opposite – they feel inadequate even though they strut around like peacocks. They are secretly intimidated by the target’s intelligence, creativity and confidence. In order to deal with what they perceive to be a threat, bullies begin spreading rumors and innuendo about the target and may try to sabotage work.

As Namie says, bullies often target the most talented in the workplace because “the dolts don’t threaten anybody.”

That’s why if you’re talented and creative and have been bullied once, chances are good it could happen again.

“The targets of bullies often are people who are strong and independent and talented and believe they can tough it out,” Namie says. “But once the bullying starts, most can only stay 16.5 months because it costs them their health.”

What are some behaviors that may prompt a bully to make you a target? Research shows that making statements where you put yourself down such as, “I’m bad with computers – I’m so dumb,” or “You guys should just go on without me because I’m no help and I’ll just slow you down,” put a bully on alert. At the same time, behaviors that may betray a lack of confidence such as talking too slow, (which allows a bully to interrupt) or too fast (betraying nervousness), also attract a bully’s notice.

The non-verbal cues also play a role: Bullies look for those who don’t walk confidently with head held high, or those who fail to use gestures to emphasize a point as if they’re afraid to call attention to themselves. Bullies also will test you by invading your personal space and seeing whether you put them back in their place.

Namie adds that bullies also are lazy and look for easy marks. That’s why they often will try their intimidation on new employees because they know the vulnerabilities that go along with being the new kid on the block. Still, research shows that some 75 percent of the workforce does not tolerate being controlled by another person, and a bully will back off when resistance is shown – even if it’s a new employee.

If you become the target of a bully, Namie says you should:
• Stop listening to the bully’s lies and verbal assaults. You did nothing wrong and don’t need to feel ashamed.
• Break through your fears. Even if you do it for only one week, it’s better to confront your worst fear and stand up to the bully. Procrastination only makes the problem worse.
• Assert your right to be treated with respect regardless of who you are and where you rank.
• Demand respect directly from the bully whenever you interact. You owe it to yourself.
• Document the bully’s misconduct. Report him/her to anyone who will listen. Break the silence.
• Rally witnesses and co-workers to help defend you, to shame the cowardly bully-tyrant.

Bullying – whether it happens when we’re kids or when we’re adults – can be very difficult. If you need help coping, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. Your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) can offer resources, as well as community mental health organizations. Also, check out for more strategies and information.

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