Wednesday, May 20, 2009


When the Boss is Awful

In response to yesterday's post, several commenters asked variations on "well, okay, but what if the dean is a jackass? What then?"

It's a fair question.

My first response would be that designating somebody an asshat should be a 'residual' explanation; in other words, don't resort to that until all other reasonable explanations have failed. In my observation, it's too frequently the first assumption rather than the last one. But yes, sometimes it's true. Some people gravitate towards these roles for all the wrong reasons, and they play out their psychodramas in ways that poison the organization. And one inarguable downside of tenure is exceptionally low mobility for non-superstars, so it's hard to just walk. Given a low-turnover environment, a petty tyrant can hang on for years, with his victims effectively trapped.

Although lousy bosses come in a bewildering variety of flavors, the most common ones I've come across in academia have been the Raging Narcissist and the Church Lady.

The Raging Narcissist -- usually male, but not always -- thinks that it's all about him. Although they're sometimes selfish, their real calling card is an inability to tell where they end and other people begin. That's why they can be incredibly invasive, and yet easily wounded. If everything is either 'by' them or 'to' them, then bad outcomes must be the result of bad people doing bad things to them. These guys will turn on you in a moment if they feel betrayed, which is their usual reaction to disappointment. Generally, they're incredibly dangerous, and to be avoided whenever possible.

If you're lucky, the raging narcissist can be appeased or distracted. If not, then the choices boil down to 'walk' or 'war.' The most effective weapon against these folks is usually their own indifference to official policies and equal treatment. Since they think in terms of 'friends and enemies', rather than, say, 'reciprocity,' they usually indulge in some pretty blatant favoritism. As soon as that crosses a protected class, you've got them.

The Church Lady -- usually female, but not always -- is the micromanaging control freak who mistakes 'means' for 'ends' without even knowing it. They live and die by administrivia, and love nothing more than holding grudges for years on end. They can usually be spotted by their use of the word 'integrity' to oppose any change, ever. They derive actual glee from being able to say "gotcha!," and they live in terror that someone will do it to them.

Church ladies can be useful support staff, since they're detail-oriented in the extreme, but they should never be entrusted with power. I've seen well-meaning church ladies utterly crush the people who report to them, through the sheer weight of micromanagement and blame. They're deathly afraid of the loss of control, and underlings with ability represent threats to their control.

I've had slightly better luck in dealing with the church ladies than with the raging narcissists, because I've discovered -- entirely by accident, but still -- that in most cases, nothing bad happens after the 'gotcha!' When you react to a 'gotcha!' with 'yup, my bad. I'll fix it,' they almost physically deflate. There's simply no follow-through, since their worlds are almost entirely imaginary. My nearly-foolproof method for handling these is to call their bluffs early and often. It drives them nuts, but that's because it works. (In fairness, this strategy may work more easily for men. Church ladies are often weirdly deferential to men who don't take them very seriously. I'll leave the reasons to the psychologists.) Once you've called their bluff a few times, and realized that the sky won't fall, they quickly move from scary to just annoying.

Of course, each lousy boss brings a fresh flavor of suckitude to the world. Wise and worldly readers -- what types of lousy deans or bosses have you had?

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