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Working for a Disruptive Boss


Co-Author of Conflict - The Unexpected Gift

How do you avoid being crushed when you work for a speeding train?

All too often disruptive bosses may view workers as simply costs to be controlled. Sue Shellenbarger--the creator and writer of The Wall Street Journal's Work and Family column and former chief of the Journal's Chicago news bureau--refers to Nancy Halpern, a New York leadership-development consultant, who warns that disruptive bosses may be so single-minded that they overlook the needs of their team. One executive she worked with climbed the corporate ladder because he always hit his revenue targets. Focused strictly on his financial goals, he often lost sight of what his workers needed. “But he always met his numbers,” she says.

"Disruptive bosses can be charming, charismatic and inspiring...but some disruptive bosses have a dark side—a tendency to discourage collaboration, quash dissent and bury people under one absurd deadline after another.”


WSJ-July 23, 2019

Is there hope for a so-called disruptive boss or not? Can a boss who is only interested in feathering his own nest ever be motivated to learn how to work collaboratively with the people who work for him? Let’s take a look at a workplace situation we describe in our book, Conflict—The Unexpected Gift.

A disruptive boss of a workplace team, whom we refer to as Myra, had made up her mind that one of the members of her team was functioning so poorly on the job that she was about to fire him. During a training class of ours for managers at Myra’s company, she used our Ladder of Assumptions tool to examine her perceptions of her employee’s unacceptable performance.

THE LADDER OF ASSUMPTIONS  - A Tool for Conflict Resolution

The setting was the building in which both of them worked. The facts were that a team member, whom we refer to as Antonio, had not met a deadline. The interpretations Myra made were that Antonio was a low-performing plodder who never completed a task on time. The motives she attributed to Antonio were that he was only concerned about getting a regular salary and didn’t care about how well the team was functioning. She stereotyped Antonio as a typical union member who only does the minimum to keep his job. She decided to take appropriate action to fire him.

Before firing Antonio, Myra pondered the assumptions she had made about him and over time began to question some of them. She wondered whether he might be a person who finds it difficult to focus on his tasks at hand, or if there might be things going on in his personal life that made it difficult for him to focus. She ultimately met with him and learned from him that he is aware he is a perfectionist. He told her that being a perfectionist causes him to miss the deadlines she sets for him because he can’t meet his own unrealistic standards.

Myra told us that the meeting with Antonio ultimately helped her to go back down her Ladder of Assumptions about him, own up to assumptions she had made that were invalid and talk honestly with him about their different approaches to getting a job done. She told him she realizes she is quick to get out of the starting gates and definitely is a risk taker. He told her that he understands he is more methodical and detail-oriented than she is. Confiding in one another enabled them to realize that each of them have skills that benefit the whole team, and helped them get off to a fresh start together.

Myra showed us that a manager, who is perceived to be a disruptive boss by some of her team members, has the potential to become more self-aware and ultimately change the negative perceptions her employees have of her.

What do you think? We'd love to hear from you!

"Conflict - The Unexpected Gift" by mediators Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman, is the conflict resolution book endorsed by professional mediators.