Flash Friday: Dealing with Managerial Power Gaps

Today is Flash Friday – when a question is answered from both the 40-something and 20-something perspective. Joining me on this mission is Molly Ford of Smart Pretty and Awkward. Today’s question digs into the topic of how to deal with a rude boss or disrespectful subordinate.


The 20-Something Perspective
By Molly Ford

Going up or down the corporate chain can be frustrating, rewarding, or some mixture of both. As a 20-something, and having just crossed over from intern to entry level, trying to navigate being both young but also being valuable to a company is tough. An unfair boss makes this worse. And, as you gain experience and you move up in the company, and you find yourself hiring and managing younger people, whole new sets of challenges arise.


While still in college Katie, a 20-something, was interning in London. Her boss was notorious for making his employees cry. Katie admitted, “In fact, there had only been a few interns before me that did not cry while working there.” Her boss’s style of leadership included tearing up work he deemed was bad, telling employees they were rubbish, and screaming when someone misinterpreted what he said. How did Katie handle this?


If I reacted to his childish behavior, it would only make me stoop to his level. Also, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, even in a corporate workplace. I acted like a professional, addressed situations as they came up in a calm manner, and I found it easier to email him with questions as oppose to ask them face-to-face.”


Looking back on her experience in London, Katie is proud of how she handled the situation. “Fighting crazies with crazy tactics never works out in the workplace. It’s always good for your future and well-being to be the bigger person, even if that means remaining silent sometimes.”


However, Katie did set boundaries, and if they were ever crossed, she had a plan. “If my boss ever attacked me personally and/or embarrassed me directly in an office setting, I would absolutely have gone to his superior and voiced my frustration. In this case, it was a strategic move to remain calm and attempt to stay out of his way.”


One of the reasons Katie remained calm was to get a positive recommendation for her next job. Indeed, many 20-something are afraid of speaking up to bosses for fear of a negative job recommendation.


Unfortunately, Emily, a 21-year-old student who works part-time in retail, had just such an experience. As she came back from a summer break to her college town, Emily discovered that her old boss had been replaced with a new one. This particular store manager was not understanding of her schedule, which required an occasional trip to her parent’s home across the country. She writes,


He would schedule me on days that I had requested off, whether it was for time to study for an exam or if it was because campus was closed. When I approached him on the matter he got very defensive. Not long after this happened, I found out the previous general manager had been transferred to another store nearby and I began to wonder if I should transfer stores. When I approached the new manager about the possibility, he told me that I was not a good employee and that he would not give me a good recommendation in order to transfer me out of the store. This was a shock to me, I had always been told I was an exceptional employee and had received several honors, such as Employee of the Month, under other managers.”


Emily was upset at the threat of no positive recommendation, but she remained proactive. She explains, “I contacted the previous manager and asked if I could transfer to her store and explained that it was because of scheduling issues, although I’m sure she understood that it was much more. She told me that she would be happy to have me in her store again.”


In order for Emily to transfer without the threat of getting fired, she was careful about her options. She wrote a professional letter to the new manager explaining that she had talked to her old manager and the old manager had approved the transfer. She also sent a duplicate to the new store that she wanted to be transferred into, just to cover her bases. By remaining professional but proactive, Emily’s transfer request was accepted and she is still working for the same company today.


We have just heard from two examples of bosses abusing their power, but what if, as a 20-something, you are responsible for an intern who is uncooperative?


Jackie, a 20-something magazine writer, remembers two very different examples of interns she had. Her first intern was a good writer but not enthusiastic about the work. “She was getting plum assignments and learning things that would really enhance her resume as an undergraduate, but she acted as if every task we gave her was a chore. She had beat out many other students for the job and we would have liked to see a little excitement from her,” Jackie explains.


The next semester the intern Jackie hired was younger, so she had less writing experience, but was just so excited to be there. How did Jackie handle her intern’s lack of writing experience?


“I worked with her one-on-one, encouraging her to ask questions. She was very good about writing down what I was saying, always carrying a notebook. She caught on quickly.”


In this case, even though the intern was younger than previous hires, she stepped on the scene with such a fantastic, go-getter attitude.  In terms of hiring interns or entry-levels, Jackie sums up by saying, “You can teach someone certain skills, but you can’t teach someone to be happy about a job. Attitude is paramount.”


Remaining calm, proactive, and professional is the key for 20-somethings to stay in control and also productive. So, how do 40-something handle rude bosses and unruly subordinates?


Flash Friday: Corporate Power Gaps
By Christina Vuleta

The issue of managing conflict both up and down the power chain hit a chord with 40-something women who have seen both sides of the power gap. What do you do if your boss is a jerk and you feel you have no choice but to stay… at least for the time being? When it comes to coping with a rude boss or disrespectful subordinate there are a few approaches. Ignore it, confront it or explore it.


Ignore It

The most difficult boss to deal with of course is the bully. This is where ignoring it comes into play. A borderline emotionally abusive boss sounds much the boss Katie described above. They berate employees, go beyond criticism to humiliation and are prone to personal character atttacks. When faced with a bully,  “the best way to react is not to react” says this client services director who deals with office politics everyday. “Try not to succumb to their bad behavior. By reacting they are getting the response they wanted.”


In my twenties I moved to California for a year and inherited a particularly bad boss. Fortunately, the person I replaced pulled me aside before she left and said, “The minute “Boss X” goes off on you, I want you to walk outside and call me so I can tell you it’s not you, it’s them.” That helped me not react emotionally and fly under the radar. This consultant who survived a bully boss says that knowing it’s not you also helps you leave it behind you.


“Be as non-committal as you can. Smile charmingly and say, ‘thank you for your feedback. I shall endeavor to take that on board for the future.’ Try to compartmentalize it and repeat to yourself that it is not your weakness– it is their flaw. Then, leave it at the door of the office. It may help to try a quick mediation to shake it off as you walk out the door of the office.”


Confront it.

When it comes to a boss who is just plain rude, there’s hope they will realize the error of their ways…or at least be embarrassed into behaving appropriately if it’s pointed out directly. This marketing director who has confronted three bosses says it’s important to let them know you respect yourself.


I have found that confronting it head-on is the only effective way of dealing with it. You need to point out their behavior. I believe that we teach people how they can treat us.  If you allow yourself to be treated poorly you’re doing nothing to gain the respect of others.”


In her case, her bosses heard her loud and clear and their behavior got better.  But in the long run she didn’t respect them and ended up leaving the jobs. You may end up leaving your job in the end so you do want to keep it civil. This business owner adds that the best defense is doing a great job:


Be firm and strong letting that person know that you will not take this kind of behavior from them.  And of course, back it up by being the best you can be at job.  Success is always your best weapon.”


Explore It

Sometimes there’s a cause behind the bad behavior that can be addressed. Especially if it’s a sudden change in behavior or an outburst, try digging a little deeper. This VP at a non-profit advocates starting off assuming people are well intentioned and there’s a reason for their behavior.


“If someone is rude or disrespectful, you need to understand WHY. Ask questions like “You seem frustrated with my work (boss) / with the direction I’m giving you (sub) – is there something I could be doing differently?” Probe if they’re feeling stretched too thin, in which case you can help them by prioritizing work, sequencing activities or recommending other ways to get stuff done. Try calling out a specific behavior. For example, ‘Yesterday when you did x it made me feel y. I’m sure this wasn’t your intent”. Maybe what seems rude or disrespectful to you seems direct or matter of fact to them.”


No doubt, it can be difficult to confront a boss directly or set boundaries with a higher up. This financial advisor acknowledges that and finds that you can blur the boundaries by finding a common ground.


Shared interests may help soften the relationship with your manager.  Finding his or her strengths and feeding their ego could work magic and help cultivate a relationship.  It also helps if you never lose your cool; your body language and demeanor could speak volumes and help establish some boundaries.“



She also stresses the importance of finding an advocate or mentor who can help you navigate difficult issues with your and expose you to other possibilities within the organization.


Lastly, as with all communication, don’t forget the power of listening as this woman sets out:


“Listen to what is being said and attempt to hear between the lines. Ascertain what else is going on (e.g. external pressure, high level meeting prep, personal issues.).  Then, try to get to the issue without escalating the offense. If there’s a problem that needs solving, re-state the problem, and try to keep the conversation on that particular issue, and what the resolution might be.”


Where the 40-somethings unanimously agree, when it comes to subordinates you have to shut it down, firmly but politely.


“You have to confront it. You’re in charge, not them. They can either leave (which isn’t necessarily bad), they change for the better and things improve, or they don’t change and you have to put them on a performance improvement plan (PiP), which generally results in their termination.”


“If a simple ‘that type of comment/behavior is not appropriate in the work place and I hope we don’t have to discuss this again” doesn’t work, put the comment and your response in writing and make sure they know this is now “on the record.”


“If it’s a sub, I’d get them on a performance improvement plan because if they’re rude to you they probably have interpersonal issues with others as well.”


Thank you to everyone who contributed to this important discussion. One last thing I would add is to always make sure to get your reviews on a regular basis. They offer you a chance to state your case and document your successes and typically involve more people than your boss. Maybe we should have performance improvement plans for our bosses. But more companies do have 360 review processes or employee satisfaction programs. Take advantage of them so your voice can be heard.

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