Janet Walkow Christine Jacobs

Offensive Leadership

All of us have had to act on the offensive, protecting our interests, principles and people in our lives. In writing about offensive leadership, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the word, offensive, can also be used to describe someone or something that is repulsive or degrading. The duality of meaning describes what many of us have had to deal within the workplace, unfortunately. There are different ways of dealing with bad leadership. Sometimes, going on the offensive to create open dialogue works; other times, confronting bad leaders has little effect and it may be you that needs to make a change.

Let  Let Down

Have you ever had a boss who decided that it would be best to swoop in and manage your team? That happened to Sarah last year. She had been at an offsite meeting one morning, and arrived at work just before lunch, to learn that her company was cutting over 100 jobs. Sarah’s surprise wasn’t the news of the layoffs, but that her boss had unilaterally decided that two people from Sarah’s team were being let go and had conveyed the news them that morning – before Sarah arrived. Her boss had blindsided both Sarah and her team. The pre-emptive firings violated Management 101 behavior and left Sarah to pick up the pieces.

Dealing with Duality

Sarah was fuming and wondered if her boss’ actions were a signal that he didn’t value her as a manager. Was her job at stake? She was scheduled to meet with her boss later that week and was tempted to tell her manager how he had undermined her position, but her instincts told her that wouldn’t be productive. After consulting with a friend, she heeded her advice to go on the offensive about being offended.

Sarah started the meeting acknowledging the difficulty that accompanies making layoff decisions, but quickly adding that while he may have intended to be helpful by conveying the news to her employees, he had impacted her ability to effectively lead her team through the situation. She conveyed her desire to be a valued and included in all discussions – whether difficult or routine.

The boss quickly responded with an apology. Sarah had guessed correctly that he was trying to spare her from a difficult task. Her positive, constructive approach didn’t put her boss on the defensive and allowed him to acknowledge that she was up to the job and he had overstepped in his rush to help.

Bad Bosses, Good Choices

Sarah was fortunate that her boss understood that his actions had undermined Sarah and promised to work together. Some bosses intentionally and consistently undermine those reporting to them and have no desire to operate any differently. If you work for someone like this, you will need to decide if that’s the type of environment where you can thrive and survive. My first job, I had a boss who tried to stifle any collaborations and joint projects with folks outside our department. He rolled his eyes when he learned that I had been asked to be co-author of a publication originating from another area of the company. He’s the same person who gave me an outstanding performance review, but, no raise. He told me I had a husband who worked and that the men in our department needed the raises to help support their families. I was stunned and asked what I needed to do to deserve a salary increase. He shook his head and shrugged. I was the only professional woman in the department and short of morphing into a man, nothing was going to change. I decided to transfer to another area of the company where I would be valued, not de-valued. It was a good move.

Dealing with offensive bosses can be frustrating. The first line of defense is to going on the offensive, using a positive approach. But, you may be stuck with a bad boss that conversations won’t fix. It’s up to you to decide whether to tolerate bad behavior or make a change.

Janet Walkow is the Executive Director and Chief Technology Officer of the Drug Dynamics Institute at The University of Texas and a co-founder of Leading Women. Read her full bio.

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