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Working for a Disruptive Boss



In the September 19th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger, the WSJ's Work and Family Mail columnist, received the following question from a worker:

“My manager is a lot like the disruptive bosses in your July 23rd column….She favors workers younger than she is and she seems to have a separate set of rules for them, letting them take longer breaks and make more personal calls.

“When I’ve gone to her with concerns about a co-worker crossing the line she blows me off and always finds a way of defending everyone else but me. I would quit but I’m nearing retirement and just want to stay under the radar. Any advice?”

Stepping into Shellenbarger’s Shoes...

Co-Authors of the Essential Communication Handbook, "Conflict - The Unexpected Gift."

Conflict - The Unexpected Gift Co-Authors Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman


Developing self-awareness is basic to your psychological health in the workplace. Make it a daily self-awareness practice to look inward and identify preconceptions you have that can lead to instant assumptions about others. You need to learn how to take stock of what your mind is doing in the moment, especially when you are rushing to judgment about your boss. It enables you to observe your thoughts and feelings without necessarily acting on them.

You need to be humble enough to acknowledge to yourself that however you judge a situation, such as the assumptions you make about how your boss favors younger employees, it is only from your point of view. And your opinion is only one of many possible perspectives. It is your own particular collection of subjective thoughts. You need to face the fact that you could very well be wrong.

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Self-Observation, Reflection and Accountability

Making negative assumptions about her instantly and not accepting her the way she is is self-defeating and adds to the tension in your relationship with her. You need to observe your attitudes toward her in the moment, and check them out by trying to figure out why your mind rushes so quickly to making assumptions about her. Here are some ways to avoid making snap judgments about your boss.

+ IDENTIFY YOUR BOSS'S BEHAVIOR that comes across to you as objectionable, and observe how you reacted to her.

+ COMMIT TO LOOKING INWARD and examining the assumptions you made that may have led to your reactions.

+ BRING TO THE SURFACE OF YOUR MIND emotions you are experiencing in relation to your boss, and acknowledge that those emotions are your own. She is not causing them.

+ NOTICE THAT IT IS YOUR ASSUMPTIONS about the behavior of your boss that are triggering your emotions, and that your assumptions have no objective validity. They are your own thoughts.

+ ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THE COMPLAINTS YOU MADE to your boss about actions taken by your co-worker, which you deemed to be crossing the line, are the direct result of assumptions you made about that co-worker.

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Seek Mutual Understanding

You believe that your boss treats you unfairly and gives you the cold shoulder when you come to her with complaints about a younger co-worker. That assumption causes you to get upset with your boss. Try to understand her goals and true intentions, and make a strong effort to become aware of the many factors that may have caused her to behave the way she does. Adding that knowledge to an awareness of your own assumptions and how they have contributed to your feelings about, and reactions to, your boss can open a door to a path of mutual understanding and reconciliation.

+ ASK. The next time you meet with your boss ask her if she would be willing to talk with you about the validity of particular assumptions each of you have made about the other. Here are steps the two of you need to take to figure out which assumptions to validate and which you can let go of:

+ STAY OPEN AND CURIOUS. Jointly be willing to entertain the possibility that there might be explanations for each other’s behavior that the two of you haven’t yet considered.

+ CLARIFY AND RECONCILE. Work together to reconcile differing assumptions about each other’s behavior and to arrive at those assumptions that both of you can agree upon.

The Essential Communication Handbook by Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman