My Boss Has Anger Issues
July 1, 2007 6:38 AM   Subscribe

How to proceed with caution in dealing with a smart and talented boss who has anger-management and mental health problems...?

I work in a small non-profit organization (administrative staff of 17). I love my job and the impact I have in my community through my work. I've been there for 10 years and have garnered a tremendous amount of respect and visibility for the programs I've designed, most of which revolve around serving the needs of children. If I were to leave this organization, I would have to move to a new city to stay in the same field, or I would have to start over with a new (possibly related) kind of job.

I was promoted internally 9 years ago, into an executive/management position, by the Executive Director, who is one of the smartest, most knowledgeable people in this field that I have ever met. She knows her job and our field inside out, but is unfortunately, a terrible manager of people and has serious anger management problems.

I could give a long list of examples, but suffice it to say that when she's experiencing any kind of frustration-- whether it's work-related or in her personal life-- she yells... a lot. She belittes, insults, curses, makes rash policy decisions, yells some more, and never apologizes. She's been known to slam doors and actually throw things as well. Although this is a non-work example, she once became so enraged at another driver for cutting her off that she intentionally rear-ended their car. AND told people about it afterwards, as if she was in the right!

This anger comes and goes-- it's not always like this, and periods of calm can go on for months before the monster invariably resurfaces. Since it's a small office and a very close group, we all know what's going on in the lastest phase, including the fact that she stopped taking her anti-depressants while in a happy new relationship and then crashed after she got dumped. The last few weeks have been so bad that two dedicated executive staff members (for the first time ever) have mentioned they're thinking about quitting. Two younger staff members have left in the past two months.

Here's the "rub." I am (seriously) the only executive staff member that, throughout all of these swings in mood, has NEVER been on the receiving end of one of her tirades. and everyone knows it. I'm well liked, and they don't hate me for it, but they all look at me like I'm the one who's supposed to do something to stop it.

I've looked at other similar issues posted here, and everyone says the same thing... document, document, document. But do I document things happening to other people, not me? Our HR policy requires this kind of behavior to be reported directly to the Executive Director or, if it is the ED, directly to the board. Truthfully, I have absolutely no idea if the board is aware how she treats staff, or if they don't care because-- in the end-- she gets results. Truthfully, I feel that if I make the choice to go to the board about this issue, I will not work there much longer.

I am so aware that she is dealing with mental health issues, and as a result, part of how I deal with her is that I just feel sorry for her. It seems she's spiraling out of control. I almost feel like what she needs is some kind of an "intervention" where she gets a major wake-up call about how her behavior affects other people and actually has a negative impact on productivity and morale.

Sorry this is so long, but I guess I feel the details will give context. At this time, I'd welcome any advice you all can share.
posted by Sabine3283 to Work & Money (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Start documenting it. Write down as many facts as you can, day/date/time/what she said, etc. and go to the board. Give them every bit of information you have. Tell them that you didn't want to confront her with it because you were concerned about her reaction. Just because she has mental health issues doesn't make it OK for her to behave this way; in fact getting fired might be a wake-up call for her. Even if it's not, she can go deal with her 'mental health issues' elsewhere. That kind of behavior is totally unacceptable and you don't need to put up with it.
posted by mattholomew at 7:29 AM on July 1, 2007

...and forgot to add, yes, document what's happening to others if it's not happening to you. Has she sent inflammatory emails? Save them, or start saving them.
posted by mattholomew at 7:31 AM on July 1, 2007

She's a bully. Someone needs to stand up to her. Easier said than done, I'm sure. Everyone in the office, including probably you, are enabling her to behave this way.

Someone that has the guts to defend herself should take a stand. "Yes, I agree that my project has some flaws, but I'd appreciate it, that in the future, you will speak to me in a more professional manner."

Good luck.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:33 AM on July 1, 2007

What do you want to 'do'? IOW, what do you want the end result to be?

1) She gets better/treatment/a concussion (J/K) and everyone lives happily ever after? You say that she might need an intervention - what would that involve, and do you feel a respnsibility to do that yourself?

2) She leaves, voluntarily or not - that could be done, but not without consequences to yourself, as you note. It could also be good for everyone involved.

3) You leave - you like your job, and you'd feel guilty over those "left behind"(speculation, there) and it is a major life change.

LoriFLA nailed it, too. Bullies can back down when confronted. It doesn't sound like she responds this way - do you know why you're not (yet) a target? She might see you as an ally now. That could change if you start brining her behavior to her "attention".

In any case, I feel your pain, I really do. Here's some practical advice from a site I really like.

p.s. - it's possible the board is aware, unofficially, of what's going on. If turnover is as you say, be assured someone's written a letter that may have been round-filed until someone with creds officially says something. Is there a board member who can be trusted to be discreet that you can feel out for possible next steps?
posted by lysdexic at 7:46 AM on July 1, 2007

I'm well liked, and they don't hate me for it, but they all look at me like I'm the one who's supposed to do something to stop it.

Sounds like you would make a better Executive Director.

Working for a non-profit myself, I find it surprising that you're not more aware of just how much the BoD supports her.

lysdexic nails it: you need an ally. Just be sure that you state the problem, and what outcome would be most beneficial to the organization.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:11 AM on July 1, 2007

Best answer: It's likely that someone on the board must know about her issues, if you and your ED have each been there 9+ years (unless director turnover/term is annual). And you should take their inactivity to date as a sign that they don't want to get involved.

In my experience, an NPO with a strong, long-term ED often has a dilettante board -- people who are happy to wave their director credentials when things are going well but who don't necessarily want to get sucked in to a major staff complaint, an ED firing and recruitment, the risk of HR suits, etc. So, my gut feels that your gut is right that going to the board won't have the outcome you desire.

The staff needs to stand together. One person who tries to make a stand for everyone becomes low-hanging fruit for a firing or the type of treatment intended to make that person resign anyway.

I say that everyone on the staff in a role of leadership or seniority needs to get together and have just the intervention that has been discussed. After all, it is most appropriate that you go to the ED first, rather than going over her head right away. And, it's probably for the best for everyone if you do lead the charge, since it can't ever be said in hindsight that you were only doing it out of revenge or disgruntlement.

I would do it on a Friday afternoon. I would have loads of documentation of the incidents. I would be prepared to tell your ED, to her face, that you all believe her behavior to be the reason that recent persons have left the company -- and that other people are now considering it. I would have literature from workplace bullying websites such as lysdexic linked above. I would hasten to compliment her true skills, and the things about her that make her such a vital asset to the org. I would tell her that you all love your jobs and believe in the work you're doing... and believe she does too... but that her behavior is making it increasingly hard to get that work done.

You should ask her to give you the ways that she plans to address the problems. Someone needs to be taking notes throughout the meeting, so that a follow-up email can be sent around afterward. "To summarize what we discussed," etc. That email should be carefully crafted so as not to use inflammatory language like "that time you went crazy and broke the vase," and so on. (you don't want to ruin the woman's career forever and ever amen)

Finally, I think you need to close by telling her that you are all prepared, as a team, to go to the board if that's what it takes, and that if no resolution is ultimately achieved, you're all prepared to walk, because the current atmosphere is toxic and scary, and unacceptable.

Here's the thing for you to keep in mind: if she's on antidepressants, then she's already working with a shrink who knows that she's got problems. The woman might believe that she's got everything under control, for all you know -- but she does have someone outside the office who is specifically tasked with the care and feeding of her mental condition.

Unfortunately, she's had at least ten years to make her workplace into a place where any behavior is tolerated. Only the staff can change that, and only by confronting her, together.
posted by pineapple at 8:27 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These comments are helpful and very direct- thank you. To follow up on some issues/questions-

I believe the board may be aware of how the ED treats staff, only because it seems like there's enough talk about it internally, that some must've trickled out. However, she is the filter of everything that gets in front of the board and she never behaves this way in front of the board or donors. Our chair is very old-school, results driven and the bottom line is, our organization does well. We have a very talented and hard-working, dedicated staff.

Regarding documentation, she NEVER puts anything of this nature in writing (email, memos, etc.) It is always verbal. I believe this demonstrates how conscious she is of her behavior.

And why I haven't been a target- I am frankly not sure. I think a big part of it is because my area is so specialized and she really doesn't know how to design the kinds of programs I create. All other departments, she has direct experience in that field and so she is much more apt to step in, criticize how they do things.

I agree so much with LoriFLA- I feel like, by tolerating her abusive behavior, we have all enabled this problem to escalate. This is a very scary situation for me because I absolutely LOVE my work. It is perfect for me and I don't want to have to move and start all over again. I am really scared if I step forward and take a stand here, that I will be that low-hanging fruit that pineapple wrote about.

I feel strongly that if my colleages will not come in with me to confront this issue, I cannot do it alone. Given that they are the ones receiving the abuse, that seems even more reasonable.
posted by Sabine3283 at 9:27 AM on July 1, 2007

We recently went through something similar (although not so extreme) at the small 501C4 I work for. In the end, the Development Director and the Associate Director was able to convince the Board to "ease out" the ED. The process took about 6 months (three board meetings), but they key was that there was a ton of documentation, including letters from staffers who had left and an audiotape that was, I believe, played back at a meeting our ED attended.

Only the Board has control over the ED. Whether or not the Board knows about this, they won't do anything about it until its officially brought to their attention, because "office gossip" is not, and should never be, one of the items that the Board uses to evaluate any imployee (including you).

Documentation doesn't need to be anything that she puts in writing. If this were a sexual harassment suit (for example) it would be the harassed who did the documenting, and the same rules should apply here. Start a log writing down what you see and hear. If others approach you, advise them to do the same.

You can email me if you want more specific thoughts, but I'd rather not totally out my ED on the internets.
posted by anastasiav at 10:33 AM on July 1, 2007

Are you close enough to anyone on the Board that you could ask them for advice? What about writing a letter to her signed by all the staff that you cc: to the Board? (The Board should be concerned about turnover -- I'd specifically mention that you are concerned about the future of the organization given the # of staff considering quitting.) Get them to put her on probation(?).

That's pretty hardcore. Maybe before that , you could talk to her privately and let her know that a number of people are thinking of quitting, that you know she's having trouble but that she needs to get ahold of herself.
posted by salvia at 10:54 AM on July 1, 2007

Does she actually like you? Could you spin this as kind of a mentor thing, where you ask her if she could coach you on "leadership", or some executive sounding stuff, for your own professional development?

Because I've found that you are not going to get any results you wanted out of a confrontation with her. She's already knows, and she's already trying to improve. Having it explicitly brought up as an "attack" is... well, not going to get a good reaction.

What can work, in my experience, is to talk with that person, with kind of an informal peer-peer mood later, and say something like, "So, accounting is messing all their records up, eh? That sucks. That tantrum you threw in there, think that will get their attention? I'm not sure I would have thrown the copier out the window, though. Hey, do you think I should yell at my people more?" It's crucial to be earnest, with NO trace of sarcasm, though.

Which may set you up as her in-office therapist, but at least it might help everyone else.

Think like a board member. She gets results. Maybe that is what it takes to get you clowns to get some good work done, a periodic temper tantrum to keep you on your toes. It's working. So the rest of you aren't having fun - so what? It's called "work" not "fun time." Anyone who sets up a "it's her or us" scenario with the board is going to be in trouble. Don't do that.
posted by ctmf at 11:08 AM on July 1, 2007

I think I agree with ctmf. It sounds like you want to proceed very carefully, so some delicate, very non-confrontational questioning of the person in question might be a good first step.

It may not be fair of your co-workers to expect you to be the "leader" in this. If you can give them ideas on how to proceed, maybe this will take some of the heat off you. Having them document what happens, then appoint, as a group, someone from their numbers to talk to the board might make sense. Ideally, this designated person would be one of the ones who's thinking about leaving anyway -- this might even add weight to the argument.
posted by amtho at 11:16 AM on July 1, 2007

she NEVER puts anything of this nature in writing

Smarter than the average bully, then.

a big part of it is because my area is so specialized and she really doesn't know how to design the kinds of programs I create.

Yeah, that's the mostly likely reason. If the board knows you are that indispensable (are you?) then you might have some pull.

...Given that they are the ones receiving the abuse, that seems even more reasonable.

That's a tough one. It will depend on how indispensable they are, and how long they've been beat down. What may be obvious to you will likely be terrifiying to them, especially long-timers.

As an aside, you may be well-liked because you don't treat people that way, but you don't sound like you're in charge of them. If you are, and she's going behind you to get at them, then she's sabotaged your manager/employee relationship with them, and you've allowed it. You two would definitely have something to talk about then. That will not be a fun conversation, but you manage up the same way you manage down: 1) explain the problem 2) explain expectations 3) explain consequences of not meeting expectations 4) follow through.

As for her talking about all the things she's doing to "improve" (antidepressants can be gotten from a gp - she's not necessarily seeing a shrink). She might be using it as a shield to keep you feeling sorry for her and make excuses.

And bragging about assaulting a stranger on the street, she's got serious boundary issues, so be very careful of "sharing" or getting involved in her life (being her office shrink). That would give her an opening to see you as a target.
posted by lysdexic at 12:21 PM on July 1, 2007

I'm not sure if you should act now, or wait until you've documented a lot more abuse. If you live in a state where parties can legally record conversations that they are involved in without informing other participants, I'd encourage you to bring a voice activated tape recorder in to work. You might also encourage select other colleagues to do the same. Be aware that her behavior could expose the non-profit to some liability.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:16 PM on July 1, 2007

Here's my very frank take (from _very_ little grounding):

1) Apparently, you can't fix the core problem. (The issues stem from very deep personal issues that you can't--and you shouldn't--be in any position to help her deal with.)

2) In addition, it doesn't seem like you can manage the _consequences_ of that core problem. (You don't have the political leverage to either get yourself moved to another great position, or get her moved aside.)

I don't mean to be defeatist--at all--but it just seems like you've been put in an impossible situation. You might want to stick it out, and that's understandable, but at this point, you're really just hoping that things end up better. Crossing your fingers and hoping a situation like this somehow fixes itself is not the best career strategy.
posted by LairBob at 7:05 PM on July 1, 2007

I think it's interesting that people are classifying this as "bullying" behavior, because it's not at all what I think of as bullying. Temper, abusive behavior, etc., sure; but it sounds like it's more an issue of self-control than a habit of using abuse to get her way.

I think I agree with ctmf too. You can treat this as a business problem or as a human problem. As a business problem, it has two solutions: quit, or force her out. Approached as a human problem, you also have the option of trying to help her improve.
posted by hattifattener at 12:25 AM on July 2, 2007

Response by poster: To lysdexic - your comments are very helpful, thanks. I did want to mention, the "everyone" who's looking towards me to intervene is basically either other executive staff, or those under her direct supervision. She has never gone around an executive staff member to anyone lower on the totem pole. Like I've said, savvy.

And to ctmf, yes, she actually does like me. At least she always has... this latest episode may mark the change-over. (I have been primarily out of the office for a conference for the last two weeks, and have received almost daily reports of how mad she is at everyone, but I have only seen her briefly and she was fine with me.) I have always been able to talk to her fairly directly about work-related problems and issues... this is the one that has never come up because she's never yelled at me. In my mind, I always imagined I'd have to confront her in response to an actual attack, which hasn't ever happened.

I appreciate your placing the situation from the possible point of view of the board... Perhaps they need to understand the context of our workplace better, since I'm sure none of them have gone to research how other similar programs operate. They defer to the ED for all reporting and she is selective, for sure. I will say, in all these years, I've only ever heard her say positive things about staff to the board, so I don't think she's bad-mouthing us.

If you compare our organization to its peers nationwide, we operate at significantly lower staffing levels than almost every other one out there. The clowns < ;-) in my office work pheonomenally hard, many long hours, and operate a financially sound and healthy, sustainable organization. as non-profit employees, we are highly motivated by the mission of this organization and i myself am extremely gratified to work in a place that allows me to make a visible impact in my community. it's the temper tantrums that are starting to make it not worth the lower pay, longer hours, and other realities of the non-profit world. i think that really sums up the situation as it is now and the conversation we need to have with the>
The good news is, this week, almost everyone's on vacation (including the boss), so maybe there's a little time to take a deep breath, ponder all this great advice, and come to terms with my own thoughts on this before moving forward. Truly, the comments here have been so helpful in giving me a little validation and plenty of perspective. Thanks to you all!
posted by Sabine3283 at 9:26 AM on July 2, 2007

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