EXCERPT | Feeling drained by your boss? Impossible Bosses identifies 8 archetypal managers

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Illustration. Photographed by g-stockstudio
Illustration. Photographed by g-stockstudio
  • Have you ever had a sleepless night or wanted to quit your job because of an impossible boss? Difficult managers can obstruct your professional growth by hiding corporate ladders and trapping you in an invisible cage.
  • Using different psychological profiling systems, the authors of Impossible Bosses identify eight archetypal characters who create uniquely challenging situations at work, including Ms Say Me (the competitive control freak), Mr Tumbleweed (the indecisive worrier), Ms Crosswire (the disorganised people schmoozer), Mr Make-Up (the seemingly nice manipulator) and their four demanding friends.
  • You’ll learn about their key character traits and why they act the way they do. Best of all, you’ll learn secret strategies for mitigating the impact of an impossible boss on your work experience and how to communicate your ideas to them.

When a Ms Say-Me is the manager, she truly is the boss, and everyone knows she’s in charge. She makes sure of that. If she feels that you don’t get it, she will humiliate you in front of others to make sure you get in line. Roger White discovered this to his horror in a meeting one day. Ms Say-Me spoke all the time in the meeting and when White tried to contribute, he was told to keep quiet and that only she had the right to speak. Beware of Ms Say-Me. She can make the toughest person cry at work if you challenge her authority or disregard her.

She creates a threatening environment in which she communicates very clearly that she is to be feared. Lionel Richie sang ‘Say you, say me,’ but the first of our archetypal managers does not sing along to the next line: ‘Say it together, naturally.’ She cares only for the ‘say me’ part and doing anything together is a foreign concept to her. For Ms Say-Me, relationships present an interesting conundrum. She knows, in theory, that she needs to invest in them more, but truthfully speaking, she just can’t be bothered. Every idea must look like it comes from Ms Say-Me and if another person comes up with something she thinks makes her look bad, that person is quickly put in their place.

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Impossible Bosses, authored by Vivienne Lawack, Ha

Impossible Bosses, authored by Vivienne Lawack, Hanlie Lizette Wessels & Robert Craig, offers readers the secret strategies to deal with eight archetypal managers. Images supplied by Jonathan Ball Publishers

She is quick to criticise, so beware of her in a meeting if she feels your work is not up to scratch. She will think nothing of doing a performance appraisal right there and then and it won’t be good. Ms Say-Me is results-driven and highly effective, so people in the organisation often overlook her behaviour. When White complained to Ms Say-Me’s boss, his complaints were pointedly ignored. Her colleagues and subordinates are simply people who work with or for her, not much more. Ms Say-Me is someone who won’t typically put a lot of effort into being friendly or even polite to subordinates.

When an employee returns from sick leave, she might use executive meeting time to ask that person why they were off sick and what illness they had. ‘Do you know that I have never been off sick for one day in my whole career?’ you might hear her say. Ms Say-Me is always in control and she wants you to know that even germs are aware of this. People she considers less important are kept at a distance, especially if the situation is one in which status plays a role.

If she ever calls her subordinates ‘teammates’, it will only be to appear inclusive. Despite all of this, Ms Say-Me is a complex and interesting personality type. You may find yourself in a love-hate relationship with her, as her energy brings a lot of value to a team and an organisation, but often at the cost of healthy relationships. Her drive for success and her impatience to get results, are key ingredients to any business.

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Many managers share aspects of Ms Say-Me’s difficult traits, but when you get this mix of competitiveness, a need for control and unresolved insecurities, you have a manager more difficult than average to manage. This is an individual who typically embodies several extreme personality traits. 

Why is Ms Say-Me like this? Which aspects of her psychological make-up make her act in this way? 

It is important to understand that this person brings an interesting cocktail of insecurities mixed with a good dose of competitiveness and aggression to the workplace. Let’s start with the insecurities at play for a Ms Say-Me. Often, these will revolve around a feeling of generally not being enough – not smart, successful or good enough. As a result of these insecurities, her ego (her sense of self in relation to others) regularly wants to prove that she is indeed enough. For this reason, she’ll attempt to overcompensate for her vulnerabilities in conversation. If she feels insecure around someone who is wealthy, she will begin to drop hints that she too has or had money.

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If she is feeling inferior to someone else’s level of intelligence, she will most probably begin to exaggerate her academic successes. If she is feeling insignificant or belittled in comparison to someone, she will share something about her abilities to try to win respect. These are typical reactions that help her to mitigate the ego-bruising insecurities she carries, and to make her feel better about herself. Next, let’s have a look at the reason behind her competitiveness.

It is important to understand that Ms Say-Me is always comparing herself to those around her. When her insecurity meets with her competitive streak you can expect a reaction like the following: ‘I’m not sure your idea will work. The way I would do it is [insert whatever idea she has, which she believes is dramatically better].’ The thing is, the more a Ms Say-Me pushes others down, the more elevated she feels.

A more secure and confident person would be happy to simply suggest an alternative idea without judging the other person’s suggestion. They would potentially say: ‘I’m not sure that will work because we don’t have enough people to tackle that right now,’ and then suggest another option. 

Why is a Ms Say-Me so prone to aggressive behaviour?

It is because there are certain things that matter more to her than they matter to most people, and these things are typically tied to her self-doubt around intelligence, status, performance and success. A valuable tip is to start taking note of the things she is often angry about, as this will offer a key to the areas in which she feels she needs to prove herself. Since it’s important for her to be seen as an intelligent, high-performing manager, she won’t tolerate what she views as any kind of laziness, stupidity, poor performance or lack of respect. Her anger says: ‘You are standing in the way of me becoming my best self.’ The reason she gets angry so quickly is because when a specific incident sets her off, it is most likely that it won’t have been the first time she’s thought about it.

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She would have been secretly comparing herself with others for a long time and feeling that she falls short; and the more often she falls short of her own (insecurity driven) expectations, the more fuel she is adding to her self-created fire. When things don’t go her way, her rage flares, instantly and seemingly out of proportion, with the apparent trigger because the coals have been smouldering inside her for a long time. Ms Say-Me’s overactive ego has developed a strategy to push her own ‘not good enough’ feelings out of sight, by attacking others or by overcompensating so that she can feel better about herself.

In this way, she keeps her contrived or imagined success beautifully on display, if not for others, at least for herself. Ms Say-Me’s vulnerabilities always lurk below the surface, making her unpredictable, aggressive and extremely difficult. They are easily amplified whenever she feels she is not measuring up in terms of her own never-ending comparisons.

Once you have realised your boss is a Ms Say-Me, you have two options: feel sorry for yourself about how difficult she’s making life at the office and consider moving to another department or quitting altogether; or, you can try to work around her pressure points and unique characteristics and find a way to manage her. Doing nothing is a far greater risk to your career than embracing the opportunity to learn how to better manage your relationship with a difficult boss, in this case Ms Say-Me. After all, what do you have to lose? On top of which, if you have leadership aspirations, you should know that a true leader will always ensure that they get the job done, regardless of an impossible boss.

They take on the responsibility of managing the situation, knowing that they will not fully control it. If you develop strategies around the situations you regularly face with her, you will soon be able to start shattering the glass cage of fear, control and conflict she has built up, allowing you to showcase the value you bring to your work environment or team, and the competencies you have. This in turn gives you an opportunity to make headway in your own career. 

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Secret strategy 1:

Managing the presence of fear: establish your agency by using questions to demonstrate your strength. This strategy is especially useful when you need to raise a concern with Ms Say-Me or when you have a difference of opinion. You may be tempted to share your opinion or raise your concern directly but Ms Say-Me requires a more circumspect approach. When she is dishing out opinions or raising concerns, of course, Ms Say-Me favours a direct approach, but keep in mind that she prefers not to be on the receiving end of such forthrightness since it makes her feel threatened and might put her on the defensive. You will need to take a deep breath and bite your tongue because this approach requires patience and that you give her the opportunity to first have her standard knee-jerk reaction before you can move forward.

If you have had run-ins with Ms Say-Me before, you should face your fear of her and try to view the interaction as an opportunity to learn a different way of dealing with her and hopefully getting a better outcome. A difficult conversation with Ms Say-Me requires a two-phased approach. You start by asking an innocent question, which creates a safe, non-threatening space for Ms Say-Me. Then you follow up with a second question – the one that gets to the heart of your concern or point. The key to this strategy is that it allows Ms Say-Me to think she is in control of the discussion. 

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Another way to use a question to turn the tables is to answer a question from her that you think crosses a personal or professional line with another question. For example, the employee who was asked by Ms Say-Me what was wrong with him after he had been off sick for two days, might have responded by asking in turn: ‘Why are we discussing my sick leave at a management meeting?’ Or, if he was feeling adventurous: ‘Did you not review my sick leave reason on the HR system?’ In a case like this, brace yourself for a nasty comment, but it is likely she will drop any further queries or that she will change the direction of the conversation. By doing this you are re-establishing your agency and it will make her think twice before she asks a similar question in future. In this way, you are subtly forcing her to change her behaviour. 


VIVIENNE LAWACK is a lawyer by training and Deputy Vice- Chancellor: Academic at the University of the Western Cape.

HANLIE LIZETTE WESSSELS is a corporate executive who has held directorships at various multinationals, as well as regional and local companies.

ROBERT CRAIG is a management consultant and executive coach. Apart from a degree in psychology, he is an accredited practitioner of a Yungian-based profiling system.

Impossible Bosses is available at leading bookstores at a recommended selling price of R280 (the e-book costs R190).

* This is an edited extract.

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