Great Boss: Temper Regulation

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Most of us have a temper.  We get angry.  Things frustrate us – dumb decisions, laziness, obvious political pandering, senseless directives.  The list goes on and on.  When we are angry, we’re tempted to act out, handing a little piece of our annoyance to everyone that is somehow involved (and often innocent bystanders, as well.)

Most of us eventually learn how to keep our tempers in check.  We roll our eyes, shake our heads and walk away, have a pet phrase that we repeat over and over to sooth our nerves.  Mastery of one’s temper is a part of acting like an adult.  And we all know the potential consequences of a lost temper – embarrassment, lost friendships, new and unexpected enemies, and in extreme instances even violence.

We manage tempers like big boys and girls.

Unless we happen to be the boss.  Then all bets are off.  Many bosses seem to feel that subordinates need, or even want, to see them display their tempers.

And seemingly, the bigger the boss, the bigger potential for him to become a gigantic temperamental A-hole.

The Screamers

The most obvious type of ill-tempered manager is the screamer.  I’ve had a couple of these bosses over the years, and observed plenty of others.  Screamers do exactly what the name says – they scream, mostly at their subordinates.

Usually, a screamer revs up with a raised voice.  Once you hear the volume begin to rise, watch out.  Escalation of both decibels and vehemence tend to happen very quickly with the screamer.  In fact, in many cases a full rant may be impossible to stop once the cycle has started.  And once you are on the receiving end of a tirade, there are only two options – sit back and take it, or fight back.

Curiously, I’ve observed that fighting back seems to be a more successful way of handling this type of temper attack than the passive approach.  I’m not talking about a perfunctory objection though, I mean giving back as much as you are taking.

I once observed a classic screamer (a CEO, so there were very few – if any – limits placed on his behavior by others in the organization) go after one of his subordinates during a presentation practice run.  The CEO was standing on the balls of his feet, screaming obscenities in a bombastic voice as his face turned from bright red to purple.  I’d seen this scenario a dozen times before, and thought I knew exactly where it was headed – to a ten minute diatribe where the subordinate would be reduced to mush as the CEO harshly passed judgement over every element of his work and personality.

Then a curious thing happened – the executive yelled back (sans the obscenities – rank, after all, has its privileges) defending his decision to present things the way he had.  The argument instantly went to volume level 11, and I half expected to see the two of them resort to their fists.  The words coming out of their mouths were virtual apoplectic gibberish as both their tempers redlined.

But the seemingly inevitable fisticuffs suddenly stopped.  The CEO dropped his volume, and could be understood to growl:  “Shut up.  Shut up.  Shut up!”  Then he added:  “You’re embarrassing me and you’re embarrassing yourself.”

Suddenly silence reigned.

After a few moments, the executive went back to his presentation as if nothing had happened.  At the end of the rehersal, I saw the two men laughing and slapping each other on the back.

Respect.  The subordinate earned it from the Screamer by standing up to him.  His strategy worked, but I kept wondering what if it hadn’t?

Probably he would have been fired.  Maybe there really would have been a fist fight.  Taking on the CEO was a high risk, high reward scenario.  Everyone else I ever saw the Screamer go after melted into a puddle, and afterward, his contempt for them was obvious.

Which leads me to this conclusion:  If you run into a Screamer boss that you’ll have to deal with on a regular basis, you’re best strategy is to quickly walk the other direction.  Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

The Grudge-holder

The other type of temperamental boss I’ve observed is much harder to identify, and much more difficult to assess.  This boss – I’ll call him the Grudge-holder – holds his temper close, letting it smolder inside as he carefully calculates the weight of an offending party’s transgressions.

And he never forgets.  Apparently, such offenses never dissipate.

Given the right opportunity, the Grudge-holder will exact revenge when the target is most vulnerable.  And then he will pounce, gaining his pound of flesh and proving that at least for him, revenge is a dish best served cold.

It is bad enough when a Grudge-holding peer has you in her sights, but when it is a boss (and particularly, a CEO) you are living your “corporate life” on borrowed time.

I observed one CEO hold a grudge against two subordinates that lasted several years, only to be gratified when the pair no longer worked at the company (this Grudge-holder was so image conscious that he often delayed seeking revenge until doing so presented almost no threat to his reputation).

In this situation, the two subordinates labored for roughly five years to develop a new product for a new market the company wished to pursue.  For a variety of reasons (which are too detailed to go into here) the effort failed.  But not only did the employees fail, the CEO decided that the two men had intentionally mislead him in order to keep the project going long after it should have been halted.  In fact, he was quite angry about it (Undoubtedly, his sticking his neck out with shareholders and board members over the project had something to do with this.)  He was so angry that he was quietly marking time and hoping for a chance to seek revenge.

I had my doubts about the CEO’s conclusion.  Nobody wanted to believe in the project more than these two guys.  And when their errors were laid at their feet, they continued to be in denial – true believers in the project and the cause.

Of course, the project was shut down, and the two employees (and a number of others) were terminated.

Then the pair did something completely unexpected – they started their own, new company to produce a variation of the design we had rejected.

The CEO was silently livid.  A few months later, I suggested that I negotiate a license with the two for all our intellectual property in the space – after all, we weren’t going to use it, and if they were successful we might be able to recover at least a small portion of the money we’d lost in our doomed market-entry effort.

You’d have thought I suggested the boss give up his first born.

It quickly became apparent that there was no way the CEO was going to license anything to these two “traitors,” no matter what the price and terms.  In fact, I could tell he would have loved nothing more than to find an opportunity to take them to court.  He only lacked a good pretense, something a potential patent violation could provide.

Grudge-holding.  It can be ugly when you see up close and personal.

As it turned out, we were right and the pair were wrong.  Their company never amounted to much.  While the CEO missed the opportunity to excoriate the pair in court, he undoubted experienced great satisfaction over their ultimate failure.

My best boss

I’m sure my greatest boss also had a temper, just like the rest of us mortals.  He was, however, able to manage it far better than most.  I saw him frustrated at times.  In fact, saw him irate over dumb decisions, unreasonable restrictions, and the inability of others to grasp his point.

But I never saw him personalize it.  I never saw him take out his anger on a subordinate.  And he definitely never resorted to Grudge-holding and delayed revenge.

He somehow managed to let those frustrations go.

“I’m not interested in who shot John.”

I heard that quote many times.  It represented the commitment my best boss made to figuring out and fixing the causes of frustration and failure, rather than trying to identify a person to blame.

I don’t know if he was born with an unusual ability to manage his emotional state, or if he learned it over many years of dealing with people.  But I do know I never feared opening up, relaying bad news, disagreeing, or even tossing out a half-formed idea once in a while.  My best boss would never use one of those common sources of irritation as an excuse to take his anger out on me.

And what’s even more exceptional, he maintained his control in the same organization that was run by the Screamer I earlier described.  Despite temper tantrums being the cultural norm in that firm, he bucked the trend and stayed true to his management principles – which included never, ever losing his temper or seeking revenge.

Other posts in the Greatest Boss Series (in Chronological Order):

Posts in the “On the Way Out” Series (in Chronological Order):

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To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, concerned about how a "deal" the company is negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, things are not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.