This article takes you through how to deal constructively with a tyrant in the office
Is your office becoming a miserable workplace because of your manager's overly aggressive management style and their seemingly abrasive approach to working with others? Is what feels like constant criticism killing creativity and micro-management getting in the way of people's performance?
When everyone agrees there's a tyrant in the office and especially if the ‘tyrant' tag is attached to the boss, people routinely react defensively to protect themselves from the perceived threat. All too often a range of primitive ‘flight or fight' responses manifest as increased sick leave and resignations or individuals deciding to tackle the tyrant head on with a charge of bullying or harassment. The productivity cost can be high too when workplace conversations are more focused on the perceived tyrant than on work itself. And the risk of failure to meet the organisation's compliance obligations such as occupational health and safety can increase significantly.
Whether or not the person of concern is the boss it's important to assess the situation carefully before coming to any firm conclusions about whether you have a true tyrant on your hands. There could be many other factors at play and it is critical to avoid the trap of letting unchecked assumptions that there is a tyrant at large drive action-taking.
A constructive approach to dealing with a ‘tyrant' begins with a close look at the evidence and how it is being interpreted.
Assessing the evidence
The common media depiction of tyrants is of an absolute ruler; somebody who exercises power cruelly and unjustly to control an entire population. The use of ‘tyrant' in organisational settings is colloquial and is usually attached to somebody who is seen to be:
•1. using power abusively;
•2. lacking respect for others; and
•3. controlling of others to a degree which undermines their autonomy.
To assess the evidence means to reflect carefully on what has actually been observed about the so-called tyrant's behaviour and to do so in the context of their role and ‘formal authority' (see footnote for definition). In doing so it is essential to differentiate between observable evidence and hearsay. Workplace reputations are greatly influenced by the stories people tell each other and the interpretation that occurs at each telling. When the judgement is damning and people are induced to feel threatened it's all too easy for people to look for confirming evidence and be blind to the contra-indications.
As an example Sandy had built her reputation on leading teams to deliver large IT projects on time and within budget in the public sector. She was known for her hard-nosed approach to dealing with sub-contractors and her uncompromising attitude to quality and customer satisfaction. Staff turnover in her area had been comparatively high but the best performing staff had remained. Turnover of lower-performing staff members was tolerated by senior management because of the outstandingly good outcomes she achieved for the business and for clients.
When Sandy was promoted to leadership of a low-performing division with a mandate to dramatically improve its performance she was soon regarded as a tyrant by the staff reporting to her. Her very direct approach to interpersonal relations and her unforgiving reaction when staff missed deadlines were in stark contrast with her predecessor's laissez-faire approach. Sensing that her new role also involved management of a cultural transition Sandy sought assistance from HR to engage staff in creating needed change in the division and understanding that the controls she was introducing were in everyone's best interests.
Looking beyond the ‘tyrant' label to understand the factors which have contributed to how a person is perceived is a critical step in acting wisely.
Managing your reactions
So you've looked carefully at the evidence observed the concerning behaviour for yourself and checked its appropriateness against what is expected of the role. You've considered your organisation's written and unwritten codes of conduct and now you are convinced that you are in the presence of a genuine tyrant and need to take action.
If you are tempted at this stage to focus on the ‘tyrant' for the purpose of planning how to make them change – Stop! Something far more important requires your attention first! To deal effectively with a tyrant you should begin by examining your own reactions and dealing with them first. When you are a manager of staff how you deal with this stage will have a significant impact on how well you support your staff to cope with the tyrant's conduct.
Tyrants have a powerful effect on others. They know instinctively how to exploit people's primal fears; they can leave people feeling fearful without consciously knowing what they are fearful of. Tyrants are often unable to see another's viewpoint however persuasive their argument. This can be frustrating in the extreme for those around them. True tyrants seek to control others without respecting their right to autonomy and self-control and this leads to feelings of powerlessness resentment anger and stress in those around them.
By making the effort to understand your own reactions if necessary using the support of a skilled supportive and impartial colleague or external support and then applying some focused self-management techniques you put yourself in the best possible shape to deal objectively and constructively with tyrant-related challenges.
Responding to tyrants
If you've reached an evidence-based conclusion that you are working for an office ‘tyrant' and have engaged a range of self-management techniques to help you feel more grounded and in control of your reactions then it's time to address relationships.
The following will assist with developing a constructive approach:
•1. Make sure you understand the person's workplace goals how they see themselves achieving these targets and the formal authority assigned to their role.
•2. Aim to understand their point of view. Seeking to understand where they are coming from does not mean you have to agree with them or their methods. But it will put you and your staff in a far stronger position to make informed choices about your response. Refer to the article ‘Credulous Listening' for a useful method.
•3. Having understood their point of view determine what you can do to respect their point of view without sacrificing others' dignity or sense of self worth. For ideas on how to deal with 1 to 3 see the Management Insights article ‘Managing Upwards'.
•4. Look anew at your role responsibilities and delegated authority and those of your staff and think creatively about adjustments you can make to improve working relationships without losing momentum towards agreed goals. For example people with a high need for control often respond well to being proactively kept in the loop; more so than their colleagues with more sophisticated delegation skills.
•5. Make sure you encourage people to avoid the ‘blame game' – an organisational pastime which although comforting for the players tends to make no contribution to improving relationships and workplace productivity.
Australian workplaces are well protected by occupational health and safety legislation and most workplaces have clearly documented policies regarding bullying harassment and other forms of inappropriate conduct. Managers must be well-informed about people's rights and the organisation's obligations under the law. The approach set out here should not be substituted for careful consideration of whether formal action under the legislation is necessary.
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following Management Insights articles are available from the website:
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and group dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
Footnote: ‘Formal authority' refers to the authority delegated to a particular role. It should be appropriate to the range of responsibilities delegated to a person. To be authoritative means to act with accepted authority. A tyrant on the other hand is likely to be an authoritarian – someone who expects obedience.
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