Three Steps to Handle a Manipulative Boss
All over Hong Kong, manipulative bosses following selfish agendas are making life miserable for their employees. The story of a senior banker and his unreasonable boss shows one way out of this trap using three simple steps to take back control and make work life much more comfortable for everyone involved.
Gregory was a senior banker in an international bank, based in Hong Kong. Financial institutions are known to be highly competitive environments full of very intelligent people who often lack emotional intelligence, and Gregory's workplace was no different. He had the worst possible boss.
Gregory's boss Conrad was brilliant technically and ineffectual in his ability to manage people. He would alternate between ignoring Gregory and micromanaging him. Conrad would demand reams of detailed information at short notice and continue to apply pressure until his demands were met with no consideration for other priorities that Gregory might be handling. Gregory was a responsible and talented manager, but somewhat self-critical.
Gregory suffered terribly from the way his boss applied pressure. His instinct was to always attempt to satisfy his boss's demands and when his boss was inevitably not satisfied, he blamed himself. In a high-stress banking environment, this pressure meant that Gregory worked and worried long hours with very little time or energy for any private life. Because he was new to Hong Kong, he had few friends locally and he began to feel quite isolated and depressed.
When Gregory sought my help as a career coach, his situation slowly began to turn around. He desperately needed to get his life under control and his boss was one of the biggest barriers standing in his way.
The three main steps that Gregory took could apply to anyone with a difficult boss.
First of all, if you're overwhelmed by a situation with a difficult boss, it's important and useful to take a step back and view the dynamics of the situation from different points of view. Gregory described the whole situation as he saw it, and then I guided him to step into his boss's shoes. From that viewpoint he could understand much more about what his boss was feeling and seeing. It is surprising how much you actually know about someone else, particularly someone you find repellant, when you look at the world through his eyes, just for a few minutes. We also took another step back and viewed the situation as a neutral observer. In your mind's eye, you can see yourself interacting with another person, and many new insights are available.
With these different viewpoints, Gregory could see some repeating patterns of behaviour in his relationship with Conrad. The next step was to find ways to break those repeating patterns by purposely behaving in an opposite manner. For example, when Conrad made unreasonable demands, Gregory usually submitted immediately. His submission would often cause Conrad to make even more demands. So Gregory decided to do the exact opposite and refuse any work that was unreasonable. For Gregory this decision was uncomfortable and took conscious control to make it work. But the results were immediate. When Gregory did the opposite to what Conrad expected, Conrad also did the unexpected and respected Gregory much more. Gregory's assertiveness immediately raised the level of trust and respect in their relationship.
As the relationship began to improve, Gregory was ready to take the third step: to understand the needs of his boss and take direct steps to meet them without compromising his own needs. Gregory noticed that when Conrad was assured of his loyalty and support, he was calmer and more reasonable. By regularly reassuring Conrad, rather than avoiding him, as had been his habit, he was able to improve the general mood of his boss and thereby make his own life much easier. This is "managing up" at it's best.
Gregory's relative isolation made it very challenging for him to make these changes on his own. He was understandably uncomfortable standing up to an intimidating boss when he relied on him for his employment and financial security in a land far from home. His fears accentuated his lack of assertiveness and fed the problem with his manipulative boss. But with a good sounding board, a few good techniques and some moral support, he was able to greatly improve his situation while developing his skills for future workplace relationship building.
By Angela Spaxman, as published in the South China Morning Post, October 2006
To subscribe to future issues of the Manager as
Coach Newsletter, please