Fighting the Boss - How and When

Vasco Duarte posted this entertaining story about a conflict between an experienced consultant and his new manager over dress code on-site. I commented there, but wanted to explore the story further.

On the face of it, it’s ordinary enough - a new boss, trying to impose authority, issues what seems to be an arbitrary edict which is announced unexplained and undefended, and implemented by force. Sound familiar? I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour, though maybe not so extreme, and books like Robert Sutton’s The No-Asshole Rule[1] are full of similar tales of what is (when all is said and done) managerial and interpersonal incompetence. The manager in question is clearly a menace, and any enlightened individual would be justified in wondering why an organisation they work for would place in a position of authority someone so clearly lacking in basic skills and awareness.

However, it seems to me there’s more to think about here. The old saw “it takes two…” is just as true of organisational as of personal conflict, so let’s dig a bit deeper.

The boss is involved in a classic fight for alpha-male dominance - “do this because I say so, so that I know and the world will see that I have the power in this situation”. It’s hard in this situation not to react in the same mode - when we’re threatened we characteristically revert to lower levels of functioning[2]. We’ll join the fight for dominance, and the result becomes a stubborn battle of wills, or worse - an even more consuming struggle that gains importance in the personal lives of the participants out of all proportion to the initial impetus.

Benjamin’s reaction to the edict is not uncommon, but not well considered. He doesn’t comply, but he doesn’t make a stand either. “I’ll wear a suit but not a tie” gives enough ground to the boss that he’ll probably feel that if he pushes harder, he’ll get the whole deal from Benjamin. Did Benjamin really think that half-way would be enough? His sense of “here-we-go-again” is another sign that he’s working at the same level as his boss, and is the first and key sign that the story is bound not to have a happy ending. By half-acquiescing in this way Benjamin is - maybe - using the conflict to support his identity: “I’m being perfectly reasonable - look, I’ve even met him half-way! - but my boss is an idiot, and besides the client is perfectly happy, so what’s the big deal?”

There’s another old saying which sticks in my mind here: never mud-wrestle a pig[3]. So what are the other options here?

First, hard as it seems, understand where the boss is coming from. On the face of it, the dress code thing makes no sense. So why has he come up with this? Has he joined your company from a big consulting firm where it was very definitely part of the culture? (I’d be worried if a someone from Bain or McKinsey turned up in t-shirt, jeans, and loafers. Come to that, I’d be worried if someone from Bain or McKinsey turned up period.) Does he just not get how things are done around here? In which case, could he use a little help, or an ally?

Maybe he’s come from an organisation with a different client base, in which case it might be a great chance for him to understand the clients the company does have. Some clients really are more interested in what’s underneath the suit (haha), and it might be a good way to get the boss, and the company, to think about the way the organisation relates to different kinds of client, and different kinds of work.

Maybe there is a client where one day a consultant turned up just that little bit scruffy, on the day when a client’s CEO was showing an important customer around? Maybe the new boss was that consultant, in his distant past?

By focussing on Benjamin’s interaction with his new boss, we’re losing a lot of context here. What’s the character of the organisation? The nature of Benjamin’s relationship with his former manager? Where did the former manager go (if inside the company, and assuming Benjamin had a good relationship with them, there’s an ally-in-waiting who - given human nature - will be only to happy to hear how his successor is screwing up). Does Benjamin have a relationship with his manager’s manager? His (new and former) managers’ peers? What do they think of this? Is there a relationship manager working with his current client? What do they have to say?

There’ll be times, of course, when none of this helps. To paraphrase Freud[4], sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. But the point is, once you get beyond reacting in kind, all sorts of opportunities arise to understand and influence a situation. Sometimes, debugging conflict and hacking an organisation can be just as much fun as fixing code: generally speaking, I think that our organisations are more broken than our software.


[1] Robert Sutton: The No Asshole Rule
[2] See my colleague Ben Fuch’s paper on Working with Conflict.
[3] You’ll lose, you’ll both get dirty, and only the pig will enjoy it.
[4] “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. Just because you’re the founder of psychoanalysis doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humour[5].
[5] Gratuitous joke: How many Freudians does it take to change a lightbulb? Two - one to change the bulb, one to hold the penis. Oh - I mean ladder[6].
[6] I don’t think Freud ever told this one.

3 Responses to “Fighting the Boss - How and When”

  • Daniel D responded:

    Coming to the office at 9 o’clock is another classic.

    Remember the “Peter Principle”: “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.”

    This kind of ridiculous behaviour is common and often has to be endured and managed.

    I got myself some books on business psychology, which are worth their weight in gold. But my efforts to endured and managed business relationships with assholes are still very patchy.

  • David responded:

    The thing to remember is that there are always more options than one’s first reaction in cases like this. It’s a sign of cognitive (not to mention emotional) maturity to be able to do this. Sure (and as I said) there will be times you can’t do anything about it. But the only circumstance I can think of where there really would be no opportunity to do anything but find other work would be if all the company were assholes. And there would be more pressing reasons than a fight with one manager to leave a company like that…

  • Tom Carroll responded:

    Interesting post, David. I have to admit to falling back on my reptilian-brain in a lot of these situations. Well worth counting to 10 and thinking a bit before reacting.

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