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Read This Or Else… (Commentary)

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I am writing today, Oct. 16, from London, where I am not surprised to learn that they are unaware that today is Boss’ Day. In fact, I think very few people in the United States are aware of Boss’ Day, which as an event, seems redundant. After all, isn’t every day Boss’ Day?

Despite their lack of enthusiasm for the celebration, there was a graph in the UK version of USA Today describing what happens when an employee is "bullied" by a boss on the job. Not surprisingly, only about 32 percent of the time is there even a partial resolution. The vast majority of incidents go unaddressed or simply ignored. And, of course, no one in this survey is asking what it means to be bullied. I, for one, am tired of the seemingly endless books on the subject written from the point of view of trying to fix or deal with difficult people – especially bosses. Most of the current writing on the topic, ranging from No More Jerks to Snakes in Suits, is so busy pointing a finger that there is not much room for anything but blame and obsequious attempts to get around bad behavior. One author, however, has a different point of view.

I spoke with Laura Crawshaw, author of the recently published book, Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness at Work (John Wiley & Sons, September 2007) about her very different perspective. To be certain, she does not condone or suggest that abrasive boss behavior should be tolerated. But rather than use the finger of blame to prosecute bosses who are overly authoritarian, brusque or rude, Crawshaw takes examples from her time in the wilds of Alaska to suggest ways to understand the abrasive boss’ point of view. Remember, understand does not mean condone or excuse. Understanding allows a more informed approach to dealing with unacceptable behavior than just saying "Play nice."

Probably most descriptive and entertaining is her comparison of abrasive bosses to bears in the wild. They just want to go about their business and be successful and they do not respond well to anything that they perceive will get in the way of those goals. It is rare indeed that even the most abrasive boss actually intends to be mean spirited or cruel. Like bears in the wild, they are going about their business and perceive anything which would threaten their success as, well, a threat. And they respond accordingly. More often than not, the abrasive boss is unaware of his impact. Enter now the Boss Whisperer – the moniker Crawshaw has been given by her clients (and, I suspect, her publisher).

In my conversation with Crawshaw, she described a familiar intervention process for abrasive bosses. Build awareness of the impact and train on skills for different responses than the default behavior of barking orders or growling criticism. Where her approach differs from the blame game is the lack of judgment or accusation. By working with the behavior from the point of view of the bear – that is, the boss – there is a much higher likelihood of making a successful change. If you need to know why a company would care about abrasive bosses, have a look at my recent articles on the Cost of Alpha Executives.

Taming the Abrasive Manager is written for HR professionals; however, it is a useful read for line executives, with one proviso. One of the challenges about this topic is that the bosses most in need of whispering are often least likely to see themselves in that role. If you work for an abrasive boss, you will find this a much more useful book than the how-to manual. It may feel better to have an author stand at your shoulder as you vilify your boss for being a jerk. But understanding the jerk’s point of view will be much more practical in terms of a solution.

(I. Barry Goldberg is managing director of Entelechy Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm headquartered in Little Rock. Barry holds an advanced certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University. You can reach him at barry.goldberg@entelechypartners.com.)

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