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The Emotional Intelligence Approach to Coping with Toxic Managers and Subordinates

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The more you know about what motivates people with different styles, the better you will be able to defend yourself and encourage them to cooperate with you and provide the work products you need to do your own job.
This chapter is from the book

What Do I Do with These People?

Informed Consent for Those Who Read This Book

Politics and personalities present tremendous obstacles to your ability to do the work for which you were hired. To succeed in your job, you need to know how to navigate through these obstacles without crashing on the rocks or having someone drop a rock on your head. You need to be able to deal with different types of bosses and subordinates, some of whom are flexible and easy to work with, many of whom are abrasive or arbitrary.

As you progress up the ladder, you will encounter people with a wide range of personalities. Some are fair, considerate, and flexible, with styles that fit in nicely with your own personality and work style. Others are fair, considerate, and flexible, but have styles that do not fit in well with yours. Yet others are unfair, inconsiderate, and rigid—and you curse the day the company hired them. Some of these managers think that they are heaven’s gift to your company, even though working with them makes you wonder why the heavens have decided to punish you so severely. Some behave as if they are in a war zone and you are the enemy.

Remarkable things occur in organizations. Otherwise nice people often behave in remarkably offensive ways under the pressure of organizational life. Moreover, there are many people in organizations who are not nice, and organizational stresses and politics bring out sides of them that are truly awful.

Toxic managers are a reality in organizational life. Your ability to deal with such managers will have a significant impact on your career. The difference between stars and average managers is often the ability to deal with the hardest situations, including the most difficult people. Some of these will be your bosses, some will be your subordinates, and some will be your customers and suppliers. The knowledge you gain from reading this book will help you deal with these people and avoid letting them derail your projects and your career. This book will help you learn how to avoid becoming a scapegoat, to survive aggressive managers’ assaults, and to give narcissistic and rigid managers the things they need to be satisfied with you. This book will also help you manage toxic subordinates more effectively so that they will be an asset to your group rather than a time bomb. Toxic managers are a fact of life—how they affect your life depends upon the skills you develop to deal with them.

Senior management is also deeply affected by the presence of toxic managers because of their profound destructive impact on the organization. Grandiose, aggressive, and rigid managers damage morale. Faced with toxic superiors, people in your organization may withdraw, fail to share valuable information, no longer have the energy or incentive to go the extra mile, lose creativity, become irritable and oppositional, and leave. This book will help senior managers to recognize toxic managers early—hopefully before they are hired but certainly before they rise to positions of power within the organization.

The book will also help senior managers to manage toxic subordinates. A toxic manager can often function reasonably well in one position but create havoc in another. The Peter Principle—the tendency for people to rise to their level of incompetence—most commonly occurs when someone with troublesome personality traits (rigidity, narcissism, aggression) performs well in a position that shields him from the worst aspects of his personality. Senior management fails to pick up on the signs of the manager’s toxic traits or fails to realize how the traits will sabotage the manager’s ability to succeed in a new position. Recognizing toxic personality traits quickly and knowing in which positions the manager will perform poorly can spare the manager and the organization serious problems.

We all have abrasive edges, ways of behaving that inconvenience others. Managers differ in their ability to control and resolve their toxic traits and thereby become people you want to have in your company. Their ability to contain their rough edges depends to a great extent upon what lies below the surface: their underlying personality traits. If a manager is irritable and yells because of depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), appropriate medication can rapidly make an enormous difference in his or her behavior. A manager who yells because he or she came from a culture in which yelling is acceptable may be able to change relatively rapidly with education and practice. Managers with deeply ingrained personality disorders, such as marked narcissistic traits, will remain a problem for a very long time, probably until you fire them. Understanding the various types of toxic managers and what lies under their behavior will help senior management to know who to invest resources in trying to change, who to move to a new position requiring different skills, and who to encourage to leave.

Even when managers’ personality traits are not severely impairing, the ability to quickly size up their personality style, along with knowledge of the impact of that style on work processes, will enable you to assign them to positions in which they are most likely to succeed. Sometimes, an outgoing, mildly grandiose, overly self-confident, and domineering manager is the most effective person to drive a project. On other occasions such managers can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as they disrupt a team’s functioning.

Attention to personality styles and problematic traits can also improve your ability to construct teams. Teams benefit from having people with a variety of styles for analyzing situations, dealing with data, and dealing with people. Teams need someone to focus attention on the work effort and make sure that problems are analyzed dispassionately. Teams also need someone to see to the human needs of team members and thereby maintain morale. Teams need people who are creative and who see the overall picture as well as members who pay attention to details and make sure that they are taken care of. Teams benefit from having some people who can keep their eyes on the main objective and others who keep their eyes open to new opportunities.

It is often difficult to create a team in which no member has toxic traits, since a high percentage of people do. How many team members can have such traits and what type of toxic behaviors can be mixed without crippling the team’s function is therefore important to consider in building a team. A team may be able to tolerate one grandiose individual but is likely to run into marked turmoil if it has multiple grandiose members. Depending upon the type of rigidity, a team may function well with several rigid people on it, or it may become totally deadlocked. Aggressive managers are also a problem, but can often be adequately contained if people are aware of their problematic personality traits early and act to constrain them before too much damage is done. The more you know about managers’ styles and how flexible they are, the better you will be able to assign people to positions in which they will succeed, avoid placing them where disaster could strike, and construct teams that are highly productive.

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