Is Your Boss a Jerk? Try This…

If you encounter a difficult person at work, it could be a manifestation of a need that is not being met. The author provides some tips on how to recognize and address this.

Recently a client sent me an email requesting help dealing with a boss with a “difficult personality.”  Clearly supervisor/direct report relationships can be challenging at times, and there can be many factors at play.   That said, I have never encountered a supervisor or a direct report who got up in the morning deliberately intending to be A JERK.  So where do things go wrong?

When a person is frustrated, confused, angry, disappointed, or bored, it is usually an indication that they have a need that is not being met.  The need may be something concrete like “I need to prepare the end of year finance reports, and the computer system just crashed,” or “I need to pay my rent, and I’m not getting paid right now.”  Or the need may be something fuzzier like, “I just poured 3 weeks of my time, energy and attention into an after action review of our last project, and no one has even read it.”  The unspoken and, often unidentified, need in this last example is the need for acknowledgement and appreciation.  (Note:  Appreciation is NOT the same as Compensation.)

All living humans have this need.  It is as vital as food and water.  Because it is not something that you can hold in your hand, many humans don’t recognize how vital it is nor even when their own supplies are running low.  When the need is not met for one person, it cannot be met for another.

Let me see if I can make that clearer.  Let’s say John is the supervisor in his office.  Because he is the supervisor, no one thinks about his needing acknowledgment or appreciation.  After all, he’s the boss, right?  Maybe John’s wife is also not skilled in providing him acknowledgement and appreciation for all that he provides at home.  (Or more likely, she tries to provide it, but does so in a way that John can’t hear.)  So John gets to work and has needed acknowledgement and appreciation FROM ANYWHERE for some time…his resources are limited.  Because he is already “starving” he is unable, physically incapable, of recognizing that Andy, who works for him is also starving for acknowledgement and appreciation.  Therefore, not only does John not provide appreciation, but the symptoms of his starvation (short-temper, raised voice, hyper-criticism) start to leak all over everyone else including Andy.  You wind up with a downward spiral in office relationships and productivity.  Voilà! The Boss is a JERK.

The good news is either John, the supervisor, or Andy, the direct report, can break this cycle.  Who should?  Whoever can.  He who CAN break the cycle, SHOULD break the cycle.

Even as the direct report, if Andy is strong enough to recognize that the reason he is not getting what he needs from John is because John is not getting what he needs, then Andy can CHOOSE to give John what he needs until John becomes satiated enough to give back.  It starts as simple as Andy committing to finding one thing every day that he genuinely appreciates John for…and specifically telling him so.  It may be something as simple as, “I appreciate knowing that you provide such a high level of attention to the officers in our unit.”  Or, “Thank you for providing the corrections to my report so quickly.  You helped me get it finalized on time.”  (**Warning:  This is not about Andy spitting out platitudes that sound nice.  It is about making a deliberate effort to catch John doing something “right.”  In order for acknowledgement to work, Andy must find a way to GENUINELY appreciate John for something.  If you try to fake appreciation, it will backfire.)

As you can imagine, in a situation where both parties have not had their needs met in a while, both parties are operating from a weakened state.  It is a triumph of human spirit to CHOOSE to break the cycle.  The good news is once the cycle is broken a new, more productive, cycle begins.

I challenge you to try this in your own office for 21 days.  Then share your experiences here.

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.