5 May 2008

The Passive-Aggressive Boss and the Quest for Competent Managers

Last night I dreamt that I was working for a short, hairy, incompetent Mediterranean man with a deep insecurity complex and strong manipulative tendencies. I would classify this dream as a nightmare.

I woke up overjoyed to find myself in bed, snuggled under what I've baptised my purple marshmallow-like duvet, enveloped in a sea of aquamarine sheeting and feeling the total bliss of not working for a Passive-Aggressive controller with an insecurity complex. It was only a bad dream.

The Rundown on Passive-Aggressive Controllers

In her book, "Coping With Difficult People", Arlene Matthews Uhl describes this type of controller as "angling for control, but having learnt to do so indirectly."

This person:

1. Repeatedly promises to do things and then "forgets".
2. Continually finds seemingly plausible excuses to delay taking action.
3. Withholds important information (or sometimes money or other resources) so that you are unable to take necessary actions when you need to.
4. Evades direct questions by offering vague or ambiguous responses.
5. Sometimes sulks and plays "poor me".
6. Expends extreme effort to maintain a friendly, cooperative persona.
- Arlene Matthews Uhl, Coping With Difficult People, Penguin Group, 2007

Other tactics I have personally recognised in this type of controlling manager and which border on deception include:

1. Keeping the ball in your court to keep you responsible and feeling guilty. For example, you raise an important issue that they have failed to address, they ignore it. Then they raise a seemingly unrelated but petty issue that you need to address yourself.
2. Failing to recognise your efforts (since this only highlights their own incompetence).
3. Being only too happy to help undermine your confidence (usually by voluntary omission of supportive, positive feedback).
4. Playing you against other people. They believe they can get you to do exactly what they want through favourable/unfavourable comparisons with other people. These comparisons seem perfectly innocuous so that they can not be accused of manipulative tactics.
5. Organisational changes occur suddenly and without warning and often these changes are at odds with what you have been previously told by your manager.

The book goes on to say that dealing with this person is very frustrating. They control by saying yes when they mean no, by stonewalling or playing the victim.
They dread confrontation and are afraid of conflict so they operate covertly.
The remarkable thing is that they often leave you baffled, insecure and perhaps feeling guilty!!!

"They're exceptionally adept at gaslighting, making you feel as though you're the problem...if you buy their spin, you'll end up apologising to them."
- Dealing with Difficult People

Gaslighting is described by Uhl as the "practice of getting someone to doubt themselves, dismiss their own reactions and perhaps wonder if they're mentally unbalanced."

She also gives tips on how to deal with this type of controller. There are actually four types of controllers, would you believe, and the book identifies other problematic individuals at work including Narcissists. Her tips for dealing with the Passive-Aggressive Controllers include:

1. Remind yourself of your accomplishments.
2. Think of the positive feedback you've gotten from others in the past and the present.
3. Don't share knowledge with them. If your plans do not concur with their plans, they can make your life difficult.
- Dealing with Difficult People

The author explains that you must be especially careful what you reveal to covert controllers.

The Issue of Trust

I actually found the book frustrating to read. Granted it was highly illuminating and I would eagerly encourage it to anyone dealing with difficult work colleagues.

But take a look at point 3 in the previous paragraph. What's wrong with it?

Well to begin, I tend to think that TRUST is the foundation of a good business relationships. I am an idealist, I strongly value trust in all my relationships. I refuse to go to work feeling suspicious and being worried about sharing information. I refuse to go to work watching my back. Why should I have to watch what I say at work? Why shouldn't I be able to fully trust that a co-worker would be honest enough to give appreciation where it is due or to openly share their plans, hopes and yes, even their failures, rather than having them hide information, sweep things under the rug or making my work progress more difficult through their planned incompetence?

I gather that most people (except for psychopaths) who are difficult to work with, are primarily insecure people. Their insecurities more or less explain why they are either unsupportive, self-absorbed, pushy, competitive, covert etc... Insecurity is a trait I do not expect in a manager yet it seems as though many managers are highly insecure and make life hell for their teams.

The Competent, Self-Assured Manager

Aside from personality disorders, insecurities are at the root of many problems in personal relationships. Why should they not be the main culprits in work relationships? I personally think they are.

As I told my sister the other week: when shopping for a job, if we want to avoid nasty experiences with bosses, we should look for a competent, self-assured leader. I am sure they exist as I knew a couple of them in the past. I personally want to look for a manager or leader that I can trust.

A competent manager is more likely to be a joy to work with since they will not hinder your progress.

A competent manager is less likely to be threatened by your own competency.

They will not hide work related information from you since they do not see you as a threat.

They are more likely to be encouraging since they are not themselves insecure.

They are more likely to raise issues in the open and provide regular feedback.

They are more likely to admit their failures since they do not feel themselves diminished by mistakes.

They are not invested in making you or other people doubt themselves since it does not serve a purpose; quite the opposite, their lack of insecurity imbues them with confidence and they spread this confidence into other people.

Perhaps rather than teaching only about financial planning or marketing strategy, MBAs should encourage future managers to develop some inner strength, a degree of wisdom and to deal better with their insecurities.

I am sure many managers, especially those who are extroverted or involved in sales work, will rigidly assert that they-already-have-plenty-of-self-assurance- thank-you-very-much. But there is a large difference between feigned self-assurance and real self-assurance.

Real self-assurance is not petty, jealous, covert or negative towards others. Real self-assurance is continually grateful for others and for their help and it is not cocky about asking for help.

Real self-assurance does not pretend to know the answers but instead, is quite happy asking the questions.

Real self-assurance admits to doing wrong rather than attributing other people's feedback to having a "poor attitude".

Real self-assurance is not seeing oneself as being above others. It does not resort to so called, 'excellent knowledge of human nature' or 'psychological skills', to manipulate others....no, on the contrary: that would be called psychopathy, it is a complete absence of empathy and misuse of interpersonal skills to deceive.

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