Suffering fools gladly
March 21, 2009 6:53 PM   Subscribe

So how do you deal with someone who is completely full of hot air in a pleasant and professional manner?

Joe is a complete windbag, absolutely adores the sound of his own voice. He is very good at being an effective speaker and rallying people to his cause, I'll give him that. But it's all hot air - he only ever speaks in vague terms and tends to embellish things a lot, which you start to notice after hanging around him long enough. Try to get him to talk about something in specific detail and he will dance around it, switch the subject lightning-fast. As we're casual friends, I've confronted him teasingly before on this (because it can be very annoying), and he gets pretty defensive about it. If you get into any kind of disagreement with him, he will become completely uncooperative and not listen at all to what you're saying.

And now he's going to effectively be my boss, taking this all to a whole new level. He's going to be giving me no direction while forcing me to listen to his bolsterism over and over again. And I am not in a position to critique his efforts, we're not that good of friends - he's already enjoying the power trip. Please help me keep my sanity and my job, before I say/do something I'll regret.

How can I learn to suffer fools gladly? What can I do to keep my patience and my mouth shut? Assume there are no superiors I can go to about this, either. Anecdotes and suggestions appreciated!
posted by lizbunny to Human Relations (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Smile. Nod. Repeat as necessary.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 6:54 PM on March 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Try to cultivate an internal sense of humor about this. If you can begin to find him amusing rather than annoying you will be able to tolerate him. (Are you guys in sales? There is a plethora of this type in that industry...)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:01 PM on March 21, 2009

His talents will be useful in getting your division support from within the company, from those who are swayed by him. This kind of support can help preserve the division from staffing cuts, for example. He could be directly responsible for you not being laid off.

Those who are not swayed by him will sympathize with you.
posted by amtho at 7:04 PM on March 21, 2009

Best answer:
Danger, Ms. Robinson! Danger!

There is a famous paper I think in the Harvard Business Magazine, the title is "How to manage your boss".

If you Google the phrase some things come up (but not this paper):



Managing your boss: Isn't that merely manipulation? Corporate cozying up? Not according to John Gabarro and John Kotter. In this handy guidebook, the authors contend that you manage your boss for a very good reason: to do your best on the job--and thereby benefit not only yourself but also your supervisor and your entire company.

Your boss depends on you for cooperation, reliability, and honesty. And you depend on him or her for links to the rest of the organization, for setting priorities, and for obtaining critical resources. By managing your boss--clarifying your own and your supervisor's strengths, weaknesses, goals, work styles, and needs--you cultivate a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding. The result? A healthy, productive bond that enables you both to excel.

Gabarro and Kotter provide valuable guidelines for building this essential relationship--including strategies for determining how your boss prefers to process information and make decisions, tips for communicating mutual expectations, and tactics for negotiating priorities.

Thought provoking and practical, Managing Your Boss enables you to lay the groundwork for one of the most crucial working relationships you'll have in your career.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 7:07 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: can we also extend this post to similarly hot air intensive co-workers too? I just really want to get better at mental tricks to tolerate "teh stupid".

I've gotten pretty good at dealing with a lot of different kinds of people, but this personality type really wears on me in the long-term.

and St. Alia, I bet this would be pretty funny in Marketing, but alas I'm in engineering projects - detail intensive, exactly where this guy fails. He's not actually an engineer, just assigned to manage us.
posted by lizbunny at 7:17 PM on March 21, 2009

Best answer: Oh lord god, there's one of these where I work (though combined with the additional aggravations that she's got even less self-awareness about it, and is NOT actually a very effective speaker because she's prone to incredibly disorganized thoughts and admittedly hilarious malapropisms, about which I intend to write a book some day).

Smiling and nodding will get you so far. But there will also be times when you need to be able to get on with your damn job. At those moments, when he pauses for breath in the midst of one of his fascinating disquisitions, ask very, very specific, task-oriented questions about what HE needs YOU to do.

Yammery Boss Man: "...and so, the new reports, by instigating a more systemic recognition of all our primary and secondary tasks, will have the effect of illustrating the primary roles and support roles that need to be implemented blah blah blah I like cheese blah..."

You: "Sounds great. So would you like me to assess the last six months of project budgets, or the last twelve? And what day do you need me to give you my report, so that you can meet your deadline with Bigshot Fancypants?"

In other words, nudge him into giving you the direction he's incapable of recognizing is actually his job to give you.
posted by scody at 7:18 PM on March 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Word, Scody. That's good advice.

I used to work with people like this too. When they start to get unspecific, try to paraphrase what their actual need is and come back with limited, specific options and maybe a reason why that's the best course of action.
"So what you're saying is that XYZ would really help the company. I can do X now because that's easy to fix, or I can do Y and Z later, like at the end of the day. I'll be able to give it my full attention after I finish the things you asked for yesterday."

When they start taking up your time on a particularly long tangent, couch it as a choice between what you're doing and what he's doing. Then try to schedule him in so his ego doesn't get bruised.
"I really want to hear more about XYZ but I need the next 3 hours to get ABC done. I know that it was important to you to get that out today. Can we talk about this at 4:00?"
posted by Thin Lizzy at 7:44 PM on March 21, 2009

"You're giving me a lot of ideas about questions I might need to ask you soon."
"I need some time to reformulate my questions."

Just make sure you keep all your safety-pins and other sharp objects in your locker, lest you be tempted to liberate all that hot air. And when you cough, don't mutter "Panglosse" under your breath/cough.
posted by emhutchinson at 8:02 PM on March 21, 2009

People like this often don't know the difference between vision, strategy and tactics. It may be that he knows exactly what needs to be done, but doesn't want to (or simply can't) focus on tactics. For any number of reasons, he may think it's better to leave the tactics to someone else and only talk about windbag-ish topics. "I can't spend time on this. My job is to provide the vision. Besides, that's all that really matters."

Sometimes, this is actually a good thing. I mean, you wouldn't ask Obama to define the best rifle to buy for the Army, or even ask him to formulate an evaluation process for rifle purchases, even if he is "commander in chief."

Passive-aggressive folks often rely on the same behaviors. "I won't tell you what needs to be done. I'll let you do that. If you're right, it'll be because I gave you the vision and you simply executed on it. If you fail, it'll be because you fucked up."

Either way, you can make this work to your advantage, by pigeon-holing his job for him, and keeping him out of your hair.

I want to back up what scody said above, because it's solid advice -- always be moving toward certainty. Praise him for his ability to lead and define vision. Tell him you will help him, because you're the tactics, boots-on-the-ground kind of person. Then do what actually needs to be done.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:24 PM on March 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

My advice is to follow up every meeting with an email reiterating what you think he said and what he wants you to do, any changes to duties, policies etc. This is also a good time to insert your opinions and to cover your ass in case he's blowing a huge project or asking you to do something illegal.

My instinctive reaction to people like this is to track down the inconsistencies in what they're saying and try to pin them down on it and achieve consensus but that is a complete waste of time.
posted by fshgrl at 8:59 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

You want to be this person's best friend. You want them to find you indispensable. Not only will this improve your situation, lead to a better position within the company, but it will facilitate compromise. Furthermore, every other one of your co-workers will be in love with you for knowing how to handle this person. You will be a rockstar among your peers and they will respect you for it. As a result, they'll start doing favors for you as well.

So, don't think of your goal as merely to tolerate your boss. You want to turn this situation into one that is advantageous for you.

fshgrl makes a great point above -- put it in writing. When dealing with someone who likes to wax poetic, they have a habit of changing their mind often. Committing something to a written record allows you to revisit tasks later when they've changed their mind. It's harder to change something in print than it is to something just said.

Which leads to the other advice stated above, try to guide conversations to the concrete. Always do it in a polite way that reinforces your bosses point, "Yes, I see what you're saying. Kinda of like X or Y?" Throw your boss reinforcing questions where you already know the answer, just to get them in agreement with you and make them feel you get what they're saying.

Try to phrase questions so that the answer is always something solid. The classic example is asking your kids at bedtime whether they want to wear their red pajamas or blue pajamas tonight, and not to ask "do you want to go to bed?". Basically, don't allow your boss to leave you with a vague task.

Basically, its a two way street. You're going to have to learn how to work with one another. That's them figure out how you work and you figuring out how they work. The better you do that, the better your life will be. Kill 'em with kindness, you'd be surprised how much easier it'll make your life than simple toleration.
posted by miasma at 9:49 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: With both your boss and your coworkers, you're going to have to demonstrate you are listening to their boring converstations. You can't appear to be disengaged or a cold fish.

You can feign interest by practicing reflective speaking. They say something, and you parrot the *exact* same words back. Fundamentally, we all want to be listened to (think about how it would be if your parents practiced reflective speaking with you!)

Your boss and stupid coworkers will feel you have really listened to them. This is one of the most important (and political) skills one can have. Almost no one practices reflective speaking.

Reflective speaking is good for building trust with people you actually *want to* talk to and build up a trusting relationship... It is not intended to be manipulative (it's a really valuable skill), but it can help you get the jerks to shut up, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:11 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

The only tip I have is to make sure you have someone in your life who you can talk to you about your accomplishments who will tell you what great work you did, so you don't try to get positive feedback from your boss.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 11:53 PM on March 21, 2009

You'll have to tolerate a certain amount of hot air, but when it comes to actually making decisions and getting things done his detail aversion may end up giving you extra power. If he waffles on about the generalities of where to take a project, you then volunteer to go away and write down some details, steering them towards what you think is right, and present him with something to sign off.

The fact that you have it written up properly then makes it harder for him to challenge your conclusions without getting into those details, which he's likely to want to avoid, and you're covered if there are problems or disagreements down the line (shallow bosses often have selective memories). Yes, you'd still have battles over the major points, but over time might find you can aim for broad approval on vague generalities and can then manage yourself from there, with your boss feeling he's still in control.

Or if he's really intolerable just start looking for a job elsewhere, sometimes it's better to move on.
posted by malevolent at 4:29 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

(I put that last point in because I often find advice people give about fitting in at work to be mildly disconcerting; yes, I realise we all make compromises to get along, but it's good to have limits. Sometimes it's better to opt out for the sake of your sanity and dignity instead of spending your working days acting out some kind of corporate drone/manipulator role)
posted by malevolent at 4:41 AM on March 22, 2009

Best answer: Sounds a bit like the Office.

To get through this without going nuts, you'll need your co-workers to be allies. So you can have a good laugh behind his back.
posted by dydecker at 5:33 AM on March 22, 2009

As far as getting specific instructions. Make sure that you ask for instructions and task in writing (e-mail will suffice). It is much, much harder to be long-winded when writing. Further, you will then have the opportunity to respond and ask for further detail, in writing.

Finally, in a worst case scenario having a paper trail in which all of his instructions are vague and unhelpful and you repeatedly ask for more and better guidelines will be invaluable should you need to show superiors that some huge error is not your fault.
posted by oddman at 9:04 AM on March 22, 2009

Learn to be assertive. Not aggressive. Not an asshole, just assertive.

Learn to be humorous. Not glib, but realize that at the end of the day, neither one of you is critical to the enterprise. ( A co-worked died one Friday at a rocket company where I used to work. Tuesday, his desk was occupied. Most of my 5000 co-workers there did not notice the change.) You're both expendable. Don't take Corporation, Inc. too seriously.

Make sure you put limits on his directions; i.e., "Nothing illegal, unethical, discrimatory, unsafe."

Also, good technique is slightly shaded "Damning with faint praise"..... "Bob, it's great to have a manager that always looks on the bright side of things and leaves the detail work to us engineers"... or "Bob, I love your simple approach to this complex problem. Can you help me solve this particularly vexing issue...?" Find something with multivariate calculus in it or Fourier transforms. Doesn't matter what. Emphasize your technical skills and try and draw a contrast in HIS mind.
posted by FauxScot at 9:21 AM on March 22, 2009

I second @malevolent. Write an email saying, "Per what you said, I am going to do X."

Since your boss is vague, you are free to make X be what you think needs doing. Or what you think is doable. You can eliminate what you think is dumb or not doable by not including it in your recap.
If he disagrees, he'll have to get more specific, won't he?
posted by musofire at 9:49 AM on March 22, 2009

Scody and miasma have great advice. At my house and job, we call this "managing up."

And seconding dydecker as well. As long as you're careful about not being overheard/read, it's amazing what understanding coworkers with a healthy sense of sarcasm can get you through.
posted by hippugeek at 12:32 PM on March 22, 2009

Nudge him:
"The main point of the book (paraphrased) is as follows:
Since people don’t think very hard about the choices they make, it is a lot easier to trick them into doing what you want than to try to educate them or incentivize them to change their behavior. There are many ways to trick people, but one of the easiest is simply by giving thought to the way choices are arrayed to them, or what they call “choice architecture.”
Some economists have tried to educate and inform, with little impact. The choice architects take a different approach: almost everyone opts for the default allocation of assets if a default is given. Thus, the answer is simply to make the default choice intelligently given what the choice architect knows about the person."

Nudging - influencing by limiting choices - works. It's sometimes known as "the second cheapest wine syndrone."

A somewhat different example (negative nudging?), as told by Simon Napier-Bell', former manager for Wham!:
"Kaz Utsonomiya acted as a London representative for Japanese record companies and artists. He had just heard that some Japanese film-makers were making a war movie in China using tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers as extras. 'They're spending billions of yen and Queen have asked them to use their contacts to arrange a concert in Beijing. From what I've heard, they've almost -succeeded. You're about to be pipped at the post.' I couldn't believe it.

I spent the next couple of days making two presentations – the sort of thing people searching for investors prepare about their product. I put together a brochure about Wham! and another about Queen – 25 -copies each, and they looked very good indeed. The Wham! brochure had pictures, biographies and reviews, slanted to show how family-orientated the boys were – how middle-class, how morally correct and clean-cut. They dressed in simple clean clothes, did their hair nicely and always invited their parents to concerts. The brochure on Queen was quite different. There were pictures of Freddie Mercury and each band member. In all the pictures, the clothes were outrageous and the make-up as thick as could be conveyed in pictures.

And there were other things. The first page was a blow-up from the dictionary showing one of the definitions of 'queen' – 'a male homosexual, especially if adopting the female role'. Sprinkled liberally throughout the brochure were pictures of drag queens in Brazil, muscle maniacs on Santa Monica beach, naked men cavorting in gay clubs, and two men kissing at the Sydney Mardi Gras, one rather butch, the other lipsticked to the upper limits. Without telling him about the brochures, I asked Kaz to fix me a meeting with the people making the movie in China. 'Porodyusa is the person to talk to,' he told me. 'He's the one who has been talking with Queen.'

The next day I was in Tokyo. Porodyusa was a pleasant man, very dapper in a suit and tie and strictly in the business of talking a deal. I showed him the folder on Queen and told him, whether he helped me or not with Wham!, I would be sending it to key people in different ministries in China. He was shocked. 'This is not something you should show to too many people.'

'I intend to show it to everyone.'

'But that would make it very difficult for us to get Queen into China.'

'Good! You can help Wham! instead.'"

posted by iviken at 3:45 PM on March 22, 2009

I don't agree with some of the advice on this page - there seems to be a lot of accommodating and even rewarding the guy for continuing to do the same thing.

First things first: do not reward him for wandering off topic. If you find that you can't get the specifics you need, then get up and walk out when he's blathering. If he asks where you're going, either make an excuse, simply say "thanks", or actually tell him that you're not getting the specifics you need and you're going to look elsewhere. Sure, this will head you toward a conflict, but it won't necessarily be a bad one, and sooner or later he may get the point. It could very well show up in a review if he's your boss, but that's why the email suggestions above will help you. You walk out with a vague idea, go back and write up your understanding (or a list of options for you to do, and ask him to choose). If he doesn't, you have a valid complaint.

I'm not saying be a dick or confrontational. But getting that message across through your actions is something you can do to attempt to modify his behavior. It doesn't mean that it will change him, so any expectations on your part that you can or must change him will lead to problems.

If you mix this approach with some humor, compliments on anything you can find you like about the guy, and genuine thanks for things he does that really help you, I think you're on the way to building a more satisfying rapport with the guy. Assertiveness is the first step to getting respect.
posted by buzzv at 1:48 PM on March 23, 2009

Carry a notebook with you at all times and write. everything. down. Sometimes people like this (particularly in a boss capacity) can - in the thrill of their own talking - tell you do one thing - and then when it turns out badly turn on you and berate you for doing what they told you to do. The email idea is a good one, but nothing beats being able at the exact moment the berating is going on to be able to turn to a page and say "I'm confused because on June 24, 2008, you said..." The key here is to maintain a "I'm confused" tone, not an "Aha! you dickhead! I've tricked you with your own words!" tone. (This is, of course, the tone you will take when you repeat the story to your friends and co-workers.)

Also, the notebook becomes a I'm-not-sure-the-right-word "visual cue?" - "training device?" in that once that happens a few times, the very act of seeing you take it out and sit there with your pen in hand while cause your boss to pause and reflect about whether what he's about to say is, in fact, what he wants you do.

Same technique also works wonderfully in the "he was supposed to do it", "no she was" office fights that inevitably happen. I haven't been following my own advice but I'm starting up again because I know it really works.
posted by katyjack at 1:51 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

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