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Taking the Bullies by the Horns

Be prepared to encounter difficult bosses in the professional world.

By Anne Hart

You know the type: demanding professors who put unrealistic deadlines on your class assignments and are never happy with the finished product. They don't encourage you to do your best. Instead, they make you feel as though you can't do anything right and will never live up to their expectations. If you think graduation means getting away from such personalities, think again. The professional world—including the high-tech industry—is loaded with bosses who are perfectionists or bullies.

In some ways, intense rivalry among computer science and engineering companies breeds these personalities. "Everywhere we turn, we hear of more competition along with shorter new-product cycles creating distress and diminished performance," says Esther M. Orioli, founder and CEO of Essi Systems, Inc., a San Francisco-based stress research and management consulting firm.

"The only factor with any significant impact on a person's ability to withstand work pressures is personal power," says Orioli. "Personal power means having control over your time, resources, important information and workload.

"Managers who feel overwhelmed by stress are likely to transfer their anguish to the people they supervise. The managers who are most susceptible to this kind of distress include two distinct personality types: perfectionists and bullies.


The late Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., was director of Human Synergistics International, a Plymouth, Mich.-based research and consulting company. In his 1997 book, Perfectionism: A Sure Cure for Happiness, which he co-wrote with his wife and fellow clinical psychologist, Dr. Lorraine Lafferty, he explains that perfectionists are overly concerned with their efficiency, image and performance. They judge critically without offering constructive help or alternative ways to approach a project or problem.

Perfectionist bosses worry so much about their own performance that, in order to make themselves look good, they expect their employees to produce more than is humanly possible in the time available. They reduce deadline time while condemning workers for not accomplishing enough. The truth is, however, they don't feel that they are getting enough done themselves.

Similarly, bullies are overly concerned with their public reputations. They need followers who look up to them, and they tend to perceive everything as black or white, right or wrong, with little tolerance for ambiguity. They also have minimum respect for others' personal space. One thing that bully and perfectionist bosses have in common is that they take away an employee's control over his or her job.

While they possess the capabilities for success, both bullies and perfectionists lack self-esteem. "Such supervisors are competent, hardworking, intelligent workers who fear they're unable to compete in the workplace," explains Lafferty.

Lafferty found that the costs of perfectionism are stress and health problems for the boss and low productivity and morale for his or her employees. Referring to his ten years of study of perfectionism involving more than 9,000 supervisors and managers, Lafferty noted that "the single most important finding is that perfectionism makes you physically sick." Because they are so consumed with self-doubt, he adds, perfectionists' behaviors infect those they supervise—especially young employees--with feelings of inadequacy.

Confronting the Difficult Supervisor

Every high-tech company relies on fast-paced production and, as the intensity of demands grows, so too will a difficult boss's need for control. Experts say the best way to deal with a bully or perfectionist boss is to avoid falling under the influence of one in the first place. When making the decision to take a promotion or new job, first take a look at the manager to whom you'll be reporting. If he or she allows and encourages a mix of autonomy and teamwork among employees, then that's a good sign that he or she is not obsessive about control.

Research from the Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. (now Reliastar Life Insurance Co.) of Minneapolis gives credence to this logic. A 1993 study by the company found that an environment which lacks teamwork, furnishes poor supervision, discourages employee input, and expects heavy employee output ultimately produces employees that have trouble completing even the simplest tasks. Experts advise that graduating students look for companies that advocate balance—encouraging after-work relaxation, providing social opportunities for employees and offering health plans that cover stress-management.

However, the telltale signs of stressed-out managers may not be apparent in the job interview where both you and your potential boss are on your best behavior. As a result, many entry-level computer scientists and engineers will at some point find themselves dealing with a difficult boss.

Career advisors say the best way to handle ornery personalities is to give each what they're lacking. "Bullies are in need of boundaries and ultimatums and perfectionists have the need to be thorough and efficient," says Dr. B. Ahmed Mohammed Shammout, a New York-based physician who counsels technically educated college students on careers that combine medical and technical skills.

Be careful not to attack or criticize the boss, says Shammout. "You'll just get the same attitude right back." He advises, instead, that you let the boss know that his or her reputation is dependent on making some changes. "Bullies in the scientific and technical industries are team ringleaders," he asserts. "They need followers and nobody's going to follow them if they lose their reputation as a leader or top dog.

"Shammout adds that a young professional on his or her first job cannot independently ask a contrary boss to make a host of behavioral changes. A newcomer would do better to gather a group of other people to sign a petition asking for changes. Employees acting together have the power to affect the boss's public reputation. Inform the person that if he or she makes the right changes, then his or her reputation will be positively impacted, says Shammout.

If a confrontation with a bully or perfectionist boss would do you more harm than good, consultants say daily interaction with the person should also be focused on meeting the person's needs, thereby giving yourself and your boss some degree of consistency and control. These kind of people are interested in concrete results, not abstract ideas. With that in mind, "Don't ask what you need to start next. Ask what you need to finish next," suggests Michael J. Goldberg, a group dynamics expert and author of Getting Your Boss's Number.

Goldberg also says that even something as simple as showing up on time every day will do much to defuse a difficult boss and win him or her to your side. He also recommends doing your best to act with efficiency and to cooperate with others in your office—behaviors that any productive employee would adopt anyway. When they arise, "explain problems in black and white terms," Goldberg says. "Draw on the talents of others on your team."

Above all, he says, avoid excessive complaining and be sure to give your boss the respect that his or her position deserves.

Anne Hart writes about careers from Sacramento, Calif.

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