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Stand up to the boss

Resist intimidation tactics with poise and candor

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in Workplace Communication

In a new book about Microsoft Corp., the authors describe how Bill Gates curses out some employees by yelling, “Why am I paying you people salaries?” To many managers, this may sound disturbingly familiar.

Blustery bosses can try to intimidate their minions by playing the hotheaded bully. Insulting comments, such as “You people are totally useless” or “Did you leave your brains at home this morning?” can leave harried underlings muttering under their breath.

If your boss tends to launch hostile salvos in your direction, stand up to the attack with these strategies:

Resist the bait. Just because your boss barks at you doesn’t mean you have to bite. If you respond to a verbal tirade by lashing out, you’ll probably wind up trying to blame someone else or defending yourself. Both of these responses make you look weak.

It’s better to stay calm and maintain outward control. You may be burning up inside, but keep a poker face and let the storm pass. If you speak without thinking, you may let slip remarks that you’ll regret later (while adding to the boss’s wrath).

Change the subject. Once the boss makes an intimidating or reckless comment, let it pass. Then raise a new issue without skipping a beat. Answer a question that he asked earlier or give him an update on a matter that you know he wants to monitor closely.

You won’t get intimidated if you don’t acknowledge a boss’s nastiness. As the boss raves, pretend you’re hearing him say in a neutral voice, “Tell me something I need to know to run this business better.”

Ask a question. Never dignify a boss’s angry rebukes by showing fear. It’s smarter to let him blow off steam and then pose a business-related question that advances the conversation. Examples: “Will you sign off on this?” or “What’s the status of our latest deal?”

By not taking what you hear personally, you detach yourself and rise above the boss’s behavior. An insurance executive tells us he handles his CEO’s caustic outbursts by thinking, “Poor guy’s gonna die young.” “I don’t even listen when he gets mean,” he says. “I just feel pity for him. And I wait him out until he settles down.”

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