Scary Work Scenario: And I Have to Spend All Day with These People?
Boss Haters, Stars, and Sliders
Let's start with the boss haters—you know the type. Harry will tell you his disdain for authority is a reasonable reaction to the tyranny of incompetent bosses. Elizabeth will tell you she refuses to be oppressed by corporate lackeys. Other Boss Haters have personal issues behind their nitpicking resistance to every directive from above. I once met a manager who told me, "For a long time, I hated all my bosses because my father was a cruel authoritarian—I almost ruined my own career. Thank God I came to my senses."
Such conversion experiences are rare, however. Most Boss Haters persist, using every kind of subterfuge from eye-rolling to outright belligerence, until management loses patience and ousts them. Some Boss Haters are hard to extricate because of union rules or special skills. If that's your situation, your best approach as the peer of a Boss Hater is a freeze-out. Don't belabor Harry's resistance or try reasoning with Elizabeth. Simply isolate; refuse to listen to their ongoing complaints. Once they're cut off from the group, Boss Haters tend to lose their energy.
Now for Stars. Make no mistake—organizations could not survive without their results. Fortunately, many key players are Stars largely because they are the best kind of employee, inclusive and inspiring, but some Stars can develop into real bullies. My team at a consulting firm had to endure Chad, an articulate (and, yes, brilliant) economics major from M.I.T. whom our clients adored. (Like other people in this piece, his name has been changed.) Sensing he was untouchable, Chad would bulldoze his ideas through the team process and ridicule anyone who dared to disagree. Another group I worked with suffered through Gwen, a marketing "guru" who'd been stolen away from another firm to bestow her genius on us. She passively disrupted our discussions by not participating, her silence sending the message "This nonsense is beneath me."
We didn't have much recourse. Few bosses want to hear nattering about a goose that's laying golden eggs. Your best option in terms of self-preservation is to accept Stars for the good they do and ignore the bad. I've seen only one other approach work, but it's hard to recommend. This technique involves playing to a Star's weakness—the need for constant praise. As strange as it may seem, many Stars are deeply insecure and cannot receive enough ego stroking from bosses. Co-workers can play the same game, thereby drawing a Star back into the team process. But don't try this unless you really feel the love for your own Chad or Gwen; a phony intervention won't work.
Sliders are former Stars, resting on their laurels and undermining their teams with apathy. Their unspoken excuse is "I've proven my worth around here; I don't need to scramble anymore." Take John Smith, a crusty old newsman who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Vietnam. I met him when we were both assigned to the same investigative team 20 years ago. The young reporters, myself included, fairly trembled in John's exalted presence, but within weeks, it became obvious to us that he had no interest in interviewing sources or late-night stakeouts. He preferred to sit around the office drinking coffee and telling war stories to his in-house fan club.
Fast-forward to the end of the project: a front-page article under the byline—you guessed it—John Smith and the newspaper team. The editors knew John had done minimal work, but in the newspaper business, one way of keeping score is by the number of Pulitzer Prize winners on staff.
My solution at the time was to moan and groan with my teammates about the injustice of it all. What a waste. Sliders will always live inside a protective bubble that no peer can pierce, because they deliver tangible value to an institution. Don't bother griping; instead, buck up and join the Slider's fan club, respecting him for contributions you can only imagine making. With that mind-set, you might even be able to turn your Slider into a mentor. To this day, I remember what John Smith taught me about reporting—when I finally dumped my pointless indignation and asked him.