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Horror stories

By David Wilson

Managers with a short fuse can become hell to work with, writes David Wilson.

The attack came "out of the blue", says Mosman-based entrepreneur Lara Solomon, 36. One day in 2000, when she worked at a pharmaceutical company and thought she was doing fine, two managers cornered her. The managers harangued Solomon non-stop for two hours.

They slammed every side of her behaviour from the time she arrived and left to what she wore, which was apparently not formal enough; they wanted her in a suit.

"I just sat there and took it," Solomon says, but admits she was devastated. The rebuke she received eclipses any tirade in Hollywood black comedy Horrible Bosses. Reports of real reprimands suggest that, despite the apparent virtue of openness, sometimes the silent treatment - being "iced out" - beats vocal criticism.

Getting redress from management for a hectoring boss is hard. A 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute survey showed that, when staff reported a bullying boss, 53 per cent of employers did nothing. In 24 per cent of cases, an employee who complained got fired.

Mouse trap
If Solomon's managers sound picky, at least they refrained from smacking her computer mouse hand. A 32-year-old public relations manager, who chooses to remain anonymous, recounts working for a boss who went ballistic every time she saved data with the mouse instead of keystrokes. Her boss tugged and slapped her offending hand and called her "stupid".
The rants and episodes got worse. Her Gordon Ramsay-style boss even succeeded in making a male colleague cry.

Exit tack
If a manager has "a permanent short fuse" and staff feel forced to tiptoe around the tyrant, "dire consequences" may follow, a workplace mediator, Cynthia Logan, says. Repercussions Logan lists include low productivity, high staff turnover and stress compensation claims. Then there is erosion of victims' self-esteem. So, instead of working around a relentlessly cranky boss, "find somewhere else to work", Logan says.

Tantrum management
If the boss is just spasmodically abusive and you hold some influence, be direct. Framing your statement as feedback, without laying blame, say how you feel when you get scolded, Logan says. Or, she says, consult your HR rep about the outbursts.

Silly sparks
Meantime, exercise diligence. Everyday reasons for managerial eruptions that psychologist Nick Petrovic encounters include lateness and absence.
Another offence that drives managers mad, Petrovic says, is toying with smartphones - simple no-nos that anyone can avoid.
But, he says, some managers who attain authority with limited experience just develop a power-hungry, micro-manager personality.

Coping strategy
If you are on the sharp end of a brutal rebuke, the answer is to avoid taking it personally, Petrovic says.
He says if you build good rapport with your boss, brushing off stinging criticism is easier.

Solomon admits that the epic attack she experienced dented her confidence.
"Whenever someone says, 'I want a word with you', I think I'm going to be told off," she says.
She adds, however, that the attack made her a more tactful manager of her staff.
She says she would never give anyone the kind of drubbing her bosses inflicted on her, which she sums up as "horrendous".


Your touchy boss may actually need a hug, judging by a 2009 study that showed bosses who lashed out did so to temper their own inferiority driven by a sense of incompetence.

Researchers tested 90 employed people about their aggression and competence levels. The most aggressive volunteers held high-power jobs and felt inadequate.

"Incompetence alone doesn't lead to aggression," the University of California, Berkeley psychology professor and study co-author, Serena Chen, says. "It's the combination of having a high-power role and fearing that one is not up to the task."

Published: 27 August 2011

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