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Don't snap at a gum-chewing boss

Coach's Corner--August 17, 2009

The Client
Name: Alicia
Age: 45
Title: Customer service representative
Industry: Cable TV
Issue: Dealing with a gum chewing boss

Q. I'm concerned that my boss doesn't behave professionally -- she even chews gum in meetings! I'm afraid to look like a professional snob, but I think she's making us look bad. Can you write about it so we can put your column on her chair?

A. Focus on controlling your own reactions, then decide what steps to take.

The inner game
There are many things in life you can't control. Other people's behavior, especially that of your boss, leads the list. You can, however, pay attention to how you react.

First, calm down. Take some deep breaths. Then look at why this bothers you so much. While gum chewing, as it epitomizes her "unprofessional" behavior, is one of those things that can get on one's nerves, I wonder if it's the real issue in this case. After all, many other things go into "professionalism," such as leadership and customer-service skills. Consider your boss' overall strengths, and reassess how much of a deficit her "unprofessional" behaviors really are.

You might also look at what you want. If you'd like to be the manager, these annoyances may be fanning your ambition. It's fine to feel that you have more to offer than your current role permits. Just be honest with yourself about what you'd like.

Now, what if you were the one with some bad habits? How would you like to be approached? People often struggle with discussing sensitive topics such as personal hygiene or irritants such as gum-chewing. But an anonymous approach only creates suspicion and distrust. This is likely a case where you'll need to either find the tact and courage to deal with it openly, or stop letting it get under your skin.

The outer game
To get your emotions in hand, develop an approach that helps you manage the annoyance factor. Try thinking about times when you've had to manage other situations like this. What has helped you? Focus on her strengths or on solving more serious departmental issues. Avoid the situation when you can, and choose not to dwell on it.

If you decide to talk to her, start by asking permission to provide feedback. If she doesn't want to hear it, you'll need to respect that.

Plan what you want to say, using "I" messages. For example, try, "I can't concentrate on what people are saying when they're chewing gum" rather than, "You're driving me nuts chomping on your gum." And be as kind to her as you'd want someone to be to you.

Apart from the immediate situation, decide about your current role. If you don't want to talk to your boss and can't live with her style, what steps will you take? It's not fair to you, your boss, or your team to look down on her. That would involve an entirely different column; for now, just resolve to look at the longer term and think about where you'd like to go next.

The last word
To bring a respectful and kind approach to this sensitive topic, focus first on your internal reactions so that you can act in a way that's best for all concerned.



Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted August 17, 2009
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