Conflict at work, how to handle it
September 6, 2006 7:08 AM   Subscribe

I work as a graphic designer for a small retail production company in a very rural area. We're a very tech-centric company with about 10 employees, and 4 core players: myself, two other managers and the owner. All of us are from the city, and the owner, one of the managers and myself have been friends since before I came to work for the company (I'm closer friends with the other manager than I am with my boss, but we all met online)... Here's the rub:

My boss has a temper that's quick and short. He'll frequently blow up at people, sometimes about things that aren't their fault, sometimes making for some pretty bad arguments. But its all over pretty quick and then he's ready to be buddies again.

We have continual problems with hiring and keeping qualified employees, which creates problems because if we had good people we'd be set for strong growth. As a result, we're usually overworked, understaffed and definitely underpaid.

Tensions have been getting worse over the last few months - between myself and my boss and myself and my friend.

I have a strong loyalty to these people, which makes it hard for me to go somewhere else until I'm so miserable here that I can't stand it ... but I also think there's huge potential if only things would run smoothly.

My immediate question revolves around this: There are days when I get chewed on - mostly for things that are outside of my control, things that aren't my fault, or things that are my fault, but I could avoid if only I had more help.

When it happens, it puts me in an angry resentful mood, sometimes for hours, sometimes for the whole day, sometimes for longer. Especially when I have been reamed for something that I never did.

Everyone at work thinks that I need to be more like my boss - once the argument is over, I should just go back to business as usual and completely forget about it. Literally.

To me, that seems completely insane and unreasonable. I don't think its wrong to be mad at someone when they behave in an unjest manner, or to remember what they've done as its a part of the picture of who they are.

Am I wrong, or are my co-workers/boss? How can I handle the situations better without outright quitting?
posted by finitejest to Work & Money (14 answers total)
Buy your boss out. Become your boss. Start your competing business. Until then, he is the boss and if you don't learn to turn the switch on and off like him, you will either end up in a nasty fight, have a heart attack or kill him. While it may be "insane and unreasonable", you are not going to change your boss. The only thing you can change is you.

My best friend from grade school went into the family business and had the same problems with his father. Eventually his father told him if he didn't like the way the business was run to go do it himself. He quit and started a competing firm that eventually brought his father's business out.

I would remind myself that whatever he is yelling at you for is out of your control because of the reasons described above. To worry over that which we have no control is fruitless.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:20 AM on September 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Am I wrong, or are my co-workers/boss?

Who's wrong might not be the most useful question to ask here. What is clear is that you feel overworked, and you are tired of getting yelled at.

Those topics might be a productive place to start a serious conversation with your boss. Without making an ultimatum, it's relevant and important for him to know that you are unhappy enough about these problems that you are considering leaving.

If he listens to you calmly and is willing to talk about things he can do to improve the situation -- and follow through on them -- then great. If he blows up, or blows you off, start looking for a job.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:23 AM on September 6, 2006

Dust off the portfolio and start looking. Guys like that don't change. Especially if they are the boss.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:39 AM on September 6, 2006

I worked for a boss who was identical. And like you, I couldn't just shake it off.
Neither of us could change enough to satisfy the other (plus the business was going bankrupt, so the boss's tantrums came first.)

Neither of you are right or wrong exactly, it's a personality clash. However it sounds like your boss is creating conflicts, and that needs to be worked on.

If you have a long relationship and the loyalty is a two way street, have a very serious, private conversation about how this behavior is not only driving away talented employees (and business you seem to imply) but making the work environment unbearable for you as well.

Then, a month later when things haven't changed, either leave or give the boss an ultimatum where he brings someone else in to manage the office and he stays where he can do little harm. (This would be a good idea to bring up in the first meeting.)
posted by Ookseer at 7:47 AM on September 6, 2006

Guys like that don't change.

Yeah, this is an adaptive behavior, a way for him to reduce stress and get what he wants in the very short term that he's probably utilized since childhood. Your chance of having him recognize a deep-seated behavioral problem that nets him short-term gain at long-term expense is not good.
posted by scheptech at 8:00 AM on September 6, 2006

Perhaps this is too primitive, but if you want him to stop blowing up, then don't let him. Tell him you can't take the yelling and that whenever it starts, your are just going to leave (tell him this while he is happy). This is probably also a good time to do as Ookseer says and have a heart to heart about your views on his behaviour and talent etc. Regardless, if he has been informed of your intended actions, whenever he starts to go off just walk away. If everyone on the staff does this he'll get the message.
posted by maxpower at 8:10 AM on September 6, 2006

...or give the boss an ultimatum where he brings someone else in to manage the office and he stays where he can do little harm. (This would be a good idea to bring up in the first meeting.)

Can't say for sure, but I don't know if it's such a good idea to bring up turning the boss into a figurehead at the first meeting. Some people would see that as a potential power struggle and reflexively react in a very negative way. Of course, not everyone is the same and you know your boss better than we do.
posted by SuperNova at 8:12 AM on September 6, 2006

To me, that seems completely insane and unreasonable.

Your gut is correct. Your boss has a boss, yes? Talk to him/her. Bosses are responsible for employees.

Barring that, quit.
posted by mkultra at 8:21 AM on September 6, 2006

Get assertive. You're obviously uncomfortable with the way he causes conflict when something goes wrong, so you really need to let him know that it's out of bounds. The next time you see a conversation turning to argument and tempers are lost, you need to distance yourself from it, stay calm, and ask him to write his thoughts down when he's not so agitated.

Depending on the person, this could reign someone in or put them into a wierd defensive attitude. Your milage my vary.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:47 AM on September 6, 2006

Your boss is wrong. He's behaving inappropriately, and in a totally unproductive manner. It doesn't matter if he's willing to be buddy buddy after he chews someone out. He shouldn't be yelling at people all the time, or ever really.

Talk to him about it. Be tactful, because I could see him being embarrassed and getting pissed off. I think you should probably have a suggestion in mind for an appropriate alternative to yelling at people. I was told by a co-worker that it is never appropriate to yell at someone openly when you're not satisfied with what they are doing. Instead the person at fault should be taken aside for a civilized discussion of what the problem is, and how it should be dealt with. My co-worker told me this in the context of describing a situation similar to yours, so it could be worth a shot.

I also like maxpower's suggestion a lot. Regardless of what you decide to do, if things don't improve, start looking for a new job.
posted by benign at 9:19 AM on September 6, 2006

In my youth, I was pretty sensitive, and I didn't stick around if there was alot of tension or drama in the place (... unless I caused it ;) ). Nowadays, I'm older, a bit wiser, or maybe just a crusty old bastard myself.

Anyway, if your boss truly blows his stack but genuinely cools off quickly, I'd consider accepting that this is the culture of the place, decide you have a thick skin, and consider giving some of it back, especially when faced with unjust accusations.

Mention this to him in advance - just say you respect him but you're not going to stand for taking the blame when it's not your fault, and you're doing it in the interest of remaining calm and productive. Next time he unloads, just stand up for yourself. The key here is that you're able to defend yourself WITHOUT escalating the argument. And you have to be able to let it go once the argument's over.

* This advice comes with no guarantee. Use at own risk ;)
posted by Artful Codger at 11:01 AM on September 6, 2006

I don't like this sort of behavoir in people. I think it's abuse and inexcusable.

And I see it all the time, professionally. And it's harder to stop after several incidences.

I let it blow over. Then I approach the person.
"Hi, something is really bothering me about our last interaction. Well, you started to raise your voice and scream."

Get this acknowledgement.

At which point I'll empathize and sympathize with their passion. I'll ask if they feel that the yelling drives their point home or shows a level of passion. If it's a "boss" thing, then I tell them to just tell me the way they want it.

I'll ask them if they feel yelling helps people get their job done better or just unnerves them.

Then, I ask them how they respond if I yell while they drive.
The idea is to get them to understand that nobody works better, faster, smarter with someone screaming at them.

I point out that I like him but that I'm interpreting the yelling as punishment and abuse. I don't find this helps my work at all - it destroys my creativity and makes me dread work.

Always, I ask for suggestions, but I narrow them down to:

If he wants things his way, just say so. If he is going to disregard my input, don't ask for it, just tell me how you want me to do the work. (The quandry is if you know a smarter way to get the work done.)

I'm willing to accept and take responsiblity for my long as we all agree that human beings make mistakes. I'll apologize for them. I'll fix them.

But I won't take abuse for them.

And neither should you.
posted by filmgeek at 12:35 PM on September 6, 2006

"When it happens, it puts me in an angry resentful mood, sometimes for hours, sometimes for the whole day, sometimes for longer. ... I don't think its wrong to be mad at someone when they behave in an unjest manner"

What's needed here is to sort things out a bit, and reframe the way you look at them. It, meaning your boss's behaviour, does not dictate your mood, and by not recognizing this you give him entirely too much power. What is happening is that you are instinctively trying to punish his "unjust behavior" by extended sulking. It may also be partly an attempt to psyche yourself up for quitting.

Let go of any urge to reform your boss, and focus on things in your control. Sit down at home in a calm mood with a pen and paper and decide on criteria that determines whether staying at this job is good for you or not. Don't let this question get muddled with your anger management issues. If you do leave, do so on good terms, not when you've psyched yourself into enough of rage to leave in a huff.

While you are there, don't fall into the trap of saying "He is making me feel bad". Take responsibility for your own behaviour and feelings. It's not about right or wrong, it's about what is useful to you. This thread has some good advice on Anger management.

Easier said than done, I know. But take every instance as an opportunity to practice this way of thinking and reacting, and it will get easier with time. You may also find that not playing along actually does less to encourage the bad behaviour. Or, by removing the drama, you may uncover the fact that you really do want to seek employment elsewhere.
posted by Manjusri at 12:42 PM on September 6, 2006

Your frustration comes from feeling out of control. I suspect that if you don't have enough resources to complete your job and feel out of control, he is in a similar position himself and is simply tranferring the load downward.

Here's how to get that control back: when your boss starts blowing up, concentrate on listening to exactly what he is angry about, without defending or arguing. If possible, try to hear the unstated reasons behind his anger. Immediately take full responsibility and apologize for whatever you actually control, without any argument or defensiveness. He's a charging bull, so you need to be a smart bullfigher and step back out of his way without resistance. Then start asking questions, getting him to clarify the situation. This is like waving the cape to draw him forward. But you're waving it to your side, not in front of yourself. *Without reacting to his anger*, summarize back to him what you think he just said, without any emotional or judgemental overtone. If possible, add some empathetic commentary. "When X happens, it must feel like Y". For example, he is getting really angry about some deadline not being met. You inquire whether there is a lot of pressure to X done in a certain amount of time, and it must be really frustrating to not be in a position to meet those obligations. Then you ask for more details about the requirements, who is making the requirements, what the consequences are for not meeting them, and what resources he's being given to meet those tasks. He will hand you clues to his feelings as he describes each situation -- he wants you to read his mind! These clues may be facial expressions, body language, or deliberately vague or ambiguous descriptions of his superiors' instructions. Catch those clues and make small sympathetic comments, remarks, or ask for more information. He goes on ...

It's the basic Socratic method -- your objective is to get him to observe for himself what the basic conflicts are. You have no preconceived notion of what the answer will be. Since you won't have attacked him directly, he should blow through the anger pretty quickly and calm down. Your feeling of control will arise from being able to direct the conversation away from yourself -- it will feel like the crowd is shouting "Ole'! Ole'!" as his horns sweep past you harmlessly. As you've already noted, he blows over things pretty quickly. Once he's calm, he may feel more benevolent and start thinking about the resources he's giving you to get through your part of the deal. It becomes a win-win situation -- he blows off steam and gets sympathy, and you will feel more competent and in control and will probably get either more time or more resources to finish your job.

An old sales trick -- if you can phrase your questions so the first two (easy) responses he has to make are "Yes" and "Yes", and you line up your kicker question after that, he will be in a more receptive frame of mind to give a positive answer to your key request.

References for above: People
and How to Win Friends and Influence People.
posted by Araucaria at 3:51 PM on September 6, 2006

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