In his book "A First-Rate Madness," Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, argues that there is a connection between mental illness and great leadership.
“During times of crisis, some of our best leaders had mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder,” says Ghaemi. “Some of our worst leaders were healthy and normal.”
After analyzing evidence of symptoms, family history, the course of the illness and its treatment, Ghaemi concluded that leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill suffered severe depression and mild mania, and others like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. showed signs of chronic depression.
In challenging times, these leaders may have benefited from thinking differently, says Ghaemi. He explains that mild depression increases realism and empathy, and mania increases creativity and resilience, the four essential traits of great crisis leadership. At the same time, he says these leaders also tend to be unpredictable, irritable and don’t work well in corporate environments with strong hierarchies.
This may confirm what many of us have long suspected — that the boss is in fact a little bit nuts. Here’s a crash course in managing the crazy and dealing with a difficult boss.
Figure out which kind of crazy you’re dealing with
Executive coach and author of "Make Difficult People Disappear," Monica Wofford says conflict typically occurs when you’re dealing with someone who has a personality preference directly opposite from your own.
She categorizes leaders into four management styles: the Commander, who is results oriented and wants to get stuff done; the Organizer, who is process oriented and wants to get it done right; the Relater, who is people focused and wants to get along; and the Entertainer, who is confident and charismatic and wants to be appreciated.
For physical cues of who you’re dealing with, Wofford explains that Commanders and Entertainers often use animated facial expressions and talk with their hands. Organizers and Relaters often listen more intently and take time to process and think through problems. Consider your manager’s motivations based on where they put the most emphasis, and try to meet their specific needs. If all they’re interested in is achieving performance metrics, focus your energies and conversations on getting results.
Communicate in a language the boss understands
Consider when and how your boss likes to communicate in order to establish trust and rapport, advises Wofford. Don’t give a long-winded diatribe if they want a bullet-pointed status update. If they bristle at pointed questions, try to connect more on a personal level and soften questions to ensure they don’t come off as critical.
David Brown, author of "The Art and Science of Dealing with Difficult People," recommends using words that reflect how your boss processes information. Are they detail-oriented or big-picture thinkers? Do they prefer to visualize instead of verbalize? If so, you might say “this is what it will look like,” and paint them a picture.
Meanwhile, remember that how you say something and what you communicate with your body language must also correspond with the boss’s style. Make eye contact and lean forward to show engagement, but try not to take an overly aggressive posture.
Bring order to chaos with thoughtful questions
Wofford says polite but assertive questions are the secret weapon to breaking down barriers with difficult bosses. If you work for an overbearing task-master who gives you an unreasonable amount of work, she suggests saying: “Thank you for assigning me these projects. I’m also working on X, Y and Z. Because I won’t be able to get everything done today, how would you prioritize them?”
On the other side of the spectrum, if you work for someone who is disorganized and unclear, ask questions that will help them articulate their expectations: “When do you need the proposal? About how many pages are you thinking? Similar to the last one?”
Finally, if you don’t know where you stand with the boss or feel ignored, ask for feedback on a project-by-project basis. It could be framed as: “How would you rate my performance on that project on a scale of one to 10? How could I get closer to 10 next time?”
Establish boundaries to protect your own sanity
It’s important to be assertive and set boundaries that will help you be successful. If you work for an emotionally explosive boss, Wofford warns not to take it personally. “If they are losing it, give them 20 minutes and then they’re over it,” she says. “If you take it personally, you’ll fuel it further and they’ll continue arguing because it’s easy.”
Wofford also notes that some bosses think they should manage in a certain way, so they try to fake the prescribed leadership style. They end up coming off as two-faced, and people don’t know which person they’re going to get from moment-to-moment. In this instance, she recommends trying to help the boss understand their behavior by, politely, pointing out the contradictions.
For those flighty managers who constantly want to drop by your desk and talk and see how things are going, try to nicely push back to limit the interruptions. “You might say,” suggests Wofford, “‘I love that you come by and check in, but is it okay if I finish this and we meet at 2?’” Then know that they’ll be late.
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