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?

Ah, the raging Narcissist was my boss for 7 years. My strategy, not particularly inventive, was avoidance. I tried to keep a super low profile since she would FLATTEN anyone who she perceived was a threat or "thwarted" her agenda (especially if that agenda was 50 cents worth of moonshine).

Of course, since this person had been dean for well over 15 years, the tenured faculty all resented her. Unit-wide meetings were labled as "the Fidel Hour" since we endured endless lectures (without a single question permitted) on her agenda.

She was eventually sacked when the upper university administration changed. She tried to rally the faculty to her cause and received a collective, "Thank you for your years of service."

It was a cold but well-deserved response.
What happens when the Raging Narcissist is the President of the college? I try to keep a low profile at work and just do my job (which seems to be working so far). But do I accept the invitations to work-related events/parties at the President's home? Or make my excuses and stay out of the light completely?
I had a Head of School who hated confrontation of any kind, and reacted with one of two strategies whenever he had to tell you something bad:

1) He straight out lied to you and told you what you wanted to hear, as opposed to the truth

2) He had quite a thick accent, and it would get thicker and thicker until it was impossible to understand him. I thought it was just me, but one of his PhD students (who was from his home country) assured me that he was just unintelligible and it wasn't my inability to understand his accent. Even when called on it by other senior people, he just gibbered on.

He also had a naive and touching faith in following the rules, which was not a particular effective strategy at that particular time and place.

I really don't know why he wanted to be a head of school, given ho badly it stressed him.anest
The genderization of this is interesting. It's interesting you learned to deal with raging narcasists by getting on their side, but it is the "church ladies" you say should never be entrusted with power.
Good luck with TG, sir.
Our current Dean thinks like a department chair and has communicated no vision for the college. He runs the college as though it is a department and communicates little with the other faculty about what's going on. It's maddening - we have no direction and no way to bargin for resources (because no one is sure what he wants).
I just finished working on a charity event run by a pair of Church Ladies. I have never gotten more credit for doing less work; my subcommittee was micromanaged right out of my hands. And none of my subcommittee members got to do anything either. But we all got to be in the program!

They put on a good event, but it would have been more successful and made twice the money had they let people step up and do their part of the work. It was simply too big for two people to do it all.

It was frustrating as all get-out at first, but then I realized I didn't actually have to show up for meetings and just had to periodically send e-mails with a schedule of my next intended tasks, which they would then thank me for, eviscerate, rewrite, and handle all the tasks themselves. Once I became personally detached and stopped caring, they stopped bothering me.
I worked for a church lady outside of academia. When she was beginning her ascent to power, I was young and green. She was a supervisor of an equal department. A few times, my department and hers worked together in various ways.

There were a couple of times I didn't back her decisions because I had the authority to speak for my department and I was looking out for our program. I took the time to explain why her decision would not be good for us and that I was charged by my supervisor to support certain changes/procedures. My supervisor was on the same administrative level as she. She listened to me, contacted my supervisor, wrangled with my supervisor, lost, and life went on. But I think she never forgot that my supervisor did not give her support and power, and as she consolidated her position, my supervisor's power began crumbling.

I was an underling, so I don't know what went on with the company politics during this time. But within two years my supervisor went to another company.

The church lady rose higher. She also never forgot that I had not supported her those times, and after a few years, I realized that I was stuck where I was as long as she had control over where I worked. So I left the company.
"play out their psychodramas in ways that poison the organization"

Love that!
I would add another category of awful boss: the Little Napoleon. Sorry to go ad hominem, but he's almost always a short, ugly little man. He has the micro-management instincts of the Church Lady, but is more prone to passing down imperious decrees from on high without proper study or consideration of the effects of new policies. He's domineering, mean-spirited, and delights in the public humiliation of anyone who questions or challenges his decisions. In general, he's a nasty piece of work, and when he reaches a rank like CAO, he can destroy the morale of an entire institution. Not that I speak from bitter experience or anything...
Kiss up, kick down

It's particularly hard to convince anyone over him/her that a KUKD is a problem, because the KUKD is careful to conceal the kicking from those above.
"The Newbie": someone new to admin/management and who would rather lie than admit ignorance on anything. The Newbie is generally well intentioned but also insecure about their new authority. The Newbie is hypersensitive about Being Taken Seriously and reacts poorly to perceived attempts at circumvention. For instance, if one has figured out that the Newbie lies when (s)he doesn't have an answer, and if one tries to obtain correct information from other sources, the Newbie will get very, very territorial and defensive. In my experience, the best way to deal with the Newbie is ask their advice on whom you should ask a question: "I'm not sure about X. I was going to ask Professor Y, is that a good idea?" This allows everyone to save face and minimizes the flow of wrong information.
I offer, for your amusement, the Empire Builder. Their primary concern is the org chart, and specifically in getting as much of as possible reporting to them. They have no particular goals, no programs, and no vision beyond reorganizing everyone to be subordinate to them. When the Empire Builder is fired, and they always are eventually, the real fun begins for everyone left. You can tell Empire Builders from Raging Narcissists in that they are typically calm, rational, even pleasant at times, and can be completely sincere. At least one I worked for was truly mystified when he was fired by the board.
For the Raging Narcissist, I've had good luck with kissing up and flattery. The idea is to get into the class of "friends" in their "friends vs. enemies" worldview, and that personality type responds well to superficial brownnosing. It's a little undignified, but can be easier than open war.
Church Lady had me LMAO ... because she is not my Dean. Can you imagine a Dean who worries about whether there is a gap between your office hours and when class starts? Every minute has to be accounted for!
We had a president who was sort of a Napoleon (couldn't call him a church lady by any stretch of the imagination.) He thought like a dean instead of a president; did not consult; abused the academic administrators, and fired those who stood up to him. Several ended up getting fired when they went behind his back to the trustees.

And then there is the sensitive soul, whose response to questions (not challenges, questions) is to decide you are an enemy; and who does not answer e-mails from those who are enemies. Narcissist, yes. But worse.

And then there is the purely incompetent -- the one who does nothing, and when he leaves has 2500 unanswered e-mails in his inbox.

I'd add that the Sensitive Soul was actually an intelligent man, but the Incompetent, not so much!
I worked for a Raging Narcissist outside academia and she is my go-to example for worst boss ever. A lot of Kiss Up Kick Down, too, although her kicking was often delivered with sweetness & light.

The Church Lady description made my skin crawl, by the way. I worked with one for several years. I think she decided that I was in the out-of-favor group right off the bat, and so no idea that ever came out of my mouth was any good. Probably didn't help that I am sometimes flaky about paperwork.

Now that I think about it, I worked with another Church Lady in that same organization, and I think that it's sometimes possible to get them to your side with flattery and careful attention. Showing respect for the fact that they do often know important things can make a big difference, depending on the person.
Another one's the Change Agent. Brought in to make the organization (in my case, a small NGO) bigger (i.e. better funded), he promptly began switching around everyone's responsibilities. To be fair to him, he asked us to write up what we did first. However his entire response to my list was to suggest reorganizing it under different headings! He then suggested just not doing some of it. Incidentally, he was out of the country during this entire time and wasn't even starting work officially for another few months, so his suggestions ran along the lines of "You're writing an reference book? That sounds unnecessary, don't do it."

Things got worse once he arrived. As the only person in the office who worked on all aspects of our operation I was the catch-can person; if someone else couldn't get to it, I tried to fit it in around my duties. In his eyes, this meant that I was the most junior employee, sort of like a secretary who was only sitting there until he wanted something. He added to my duties over and over again despite my repeatedly saying that I wouldn't have time to do [insert important thing here] if he did, while simultaneously saying in meetings that if any of us felt overwhelmed by our new duties we should tell him and he would cut back.

When he read my official resignation e-mail, he was so surprised he came straight to my office and just stood there, speechless, for a few minutes. It was a sweet, sweet moment.

Oh, and that reference book? It was for the most recent upgrade to our database - the database that I and only one other woman used. The database that was incredibly complicated, frequently confusing and which often contradicted itself. Also, the database which included ALL of our members' and donors' information. Since the other woman left before me and her replacement was totally incompetent where technology was concerned (also a raging Church Lady), I like to imagine the many ways that they could have run into trouble trying to figure out just how I managed to do my work, the work that my boss thought couldn't possibly take up so much of my time...
When the boss is awful...those under the boss still have to practice subbordination.

It sucks, but professionalism is a virtue. Let the "awful boss" make mistakes. Just make sure that you do your job right.
Church lady! There's a name for her! WOW, I thought I was suffering alone!
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