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Decide if you or your boss needs to change--and be careful

Coach's Corner--August 3, 2009

The Client
Name: Allison
Age: 28
Title: Administrative assistant
Industry: Consulting
Issue: Dealing with a drama-queen boss
Q. My new boss is smart, competent, and a willing and able mentor. Yet she is also a bit of a drama queen; no detail is too small to lose some sleep over. How do I navigate this otherwise positive relationship without getting caught up in the angst that seems to follow her like an evil twin?

A. Get specific about her behavior and its effects, and look for ways to manage your own responses.

The inner game
It’ll help to know what you want to accomplish. Are you seeking change in her behavior or the ability to ride it out more evenly? Consider the strength of your relationship and her openness to feedback as you determine your goal.

Then, look close to home. Often, the most annoying behaviors in others are those that we also exhibit. Take an honest look at yourself to see if you also have a pattern of overreacting, holding on to problems, or losing perspective. If you’re not sure, ask around — the people you deal with will have noticed.

Think about your company as a whole. People are strongly affected by their organization’s expectations and the behaviors that are rewarded. Unfortunately, rewards often go to micromanagers, fretters and “firefighters,” rather than to those who are quietly competent and prevent crises in the first place.

Generalities aren’t useful. It’ll be helpful if you can calmly and specifically outline the behaviors you observe and their effects. Listen to the difference: “You’re such a drama queen!” vs. “When you sent that email at 3 a.m., the team panicked.”  Clarify for yourself what you observe and the behaviors’ real impact — not just the effect on your personal emotional climate.

The outer game
With these insights in hand, it’s time to take action.

If you choose to discuss this with her, make a plan. Ask her if she’d like your feedback, so that you have her buy-in. Share the positive perspective that you used in your question to me. Use a specific example or two; don’t overwhelm her by piling on case after case. If appropriate, you could offer to brainstorm alternatives, or just be a sympathetic ear if she opens up about the pressures that drive her behavior.

Also be prepared to be shut down. If she doesn’t want to discuss this with you, you’ll have to respect that. You are her staff member, after all, not her boss. Consider some role — play prep with a friend to get ready to deal with any response she may have.

Focus on the aspects of this that you control — your reactions. If you find yourself getting sucked into her drama, take a few deep breaths and consciously step back out. Set limits on how you engage with her, and redirection the conversation if she dwells on the negatives. Remember ways you’ve successfully managed your feelings in similar situations, and use those strategies here. Monitor your reactions, because you may have developed a habit that you need to break.

The last word
Focus on your own reactions to keep your head and stay out of the drama. And who knows? You may even be able to help calm down your boss.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted August 2, 2009
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