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How to parent your terrible toddler of a boss

If you find yourself taking the long way around to avoid passing by the corner office, you may just be working for a TOT, that is, a "Terrible Office Tyrant."
/ Source: Business Week

If you've been hitting the snooze button lately on weekday mornings instead of hitting the shower — or find yourself taking the long way around to avoid passing by the corner office, you may just be working for a TOT, that is, a "Terrible Office Tyrant."

TOTs are bosses who act strikingly similar to children, oftentimes toddlers in their Terrible Twos. Why does this happen? Because we're all human, and behind the professional facade are grown kids who act out and can't moderate their power. Unfortunately, at some point from 9 to 5, they just cannot allow the child within to stay there. So in the workplace, these tykes ruin your day and wreak havoc on office productivity.

A TOT can also be a little lost lamb — a clueless or helpless child, afraid to reveal the slightest incompetence. Still, their mood swings, fickleness, or endless questions can make you want to crawl under your desk, or put your e-mail on permanent "out of office reply." Regardless of which type of TOT you are working for, TOTs are a distraction, leaving you to wonder whether you work in a schoolyard or a business.

The key is how you manage them.

The first step is spotting a TOT. At first glance, your boss's childish behaviors can be mistaken for a sporadic outburst. But after a while, you'll observe a pattern. Fortunately, by recognizing the parallel between out-of-control kids and bosses, you'll discover that the same basic techniques often work effectively for both.

With some keen insights, you can metaphorically place your TOT in the back car seat (just don't enlighten your boss with the analogy). You can maneuver around the most challenging and counterproductive behavior of the day — or hour — with your newfound empowering tools, some practice, and a lot of diplomacy. You can tame your TOT and thrive in your career.

CEOs are not particularly fond of TOTs either. Childish managers sap productivity and hurt the bottom line. I advise CEOs to TOT-proof their company by making it safe for success — so that employees can make mistakes, communicate, and innovate. Where TOTs lurk, so does turnover, absenteeism, loss of customers, poor employee recruitment and retention, and profit erosion.

Conversely, a firm dedicated to being "TOT-free" is successful, progressive, worth investing in and working for, as evidenced by countless lists of desirable, profitable places to work and most admired companies.

So how can you tame your TOT? Here are the five hallmarks of a Terrible Office Tyrant, and and tips on managing them:

Your sales team falls short of the projected quarterly figures. So your TOT throws a tirade that makes one thinks of a 2-year-old sprawled on the floor after being told "no!" Assessing the situation rationally and opening a constructive dialogue is not in the cards for your tantrum-prone TOT. These bosses cannot manage difficult situations where they are powerless, especially if your work led to the problem, or if you're in their line of fire.

What to do

  • Determine the best time of day and day of the week to approach your TOT: not right before lunch; Monday mornings; stock collapses or other setbacks.
  • When you sense the fireworks are happening, don't hang around for the show. If you are dragged in, let your TOT vent at first; never fight a tantrum with a tantrum.
  • Consider the acronym CALM: communicate, anticipate, laugh, and manage. Keep the lines of communication open; anticipate problems and solutions; use humor (it is the great diffuser); and manage up by being a positive, proactive problem solver.

You get into the office and wonder why your e-mail says "Server Error." Then you begin to realize that your demanding TOT crashed your computer with 27 inbox requests with enormous files, all before 9 a.m. At 9:30 he drops and asks, "What's with the no response?" The need for control, desire for perfection, or concern about deadline pressures from above can spur your TOT to bark out orders like a drill sergeant.

What to do

  • Set expectations through regular meetings. When your boss gives you a new assignment, give her an estimate of how long it will take.
  • Let your manager know when you are feeling overwhelmed and help her to organize a priority task list.
  • Upon successful completion of a project, tell your boss how mutual, realistic goals helped you to accomplish it, to reinforce the positive outcome.

Your boss has just closed a major deal with a high profile client — an impressive feat. Why then does she need your constant praise that she did a good job? TOTs may appear at your door at 5:30 p.m. and be very chatty — or display "separation anxiety" when your yearly vacation draws near. Many TOTs require a lot of attention and reassurance, but some needy bosses can also be micro-managers.

What to do

  • Encourage your TOT's independence and reinforce her own competence.
  • Put a plan together to help your boss strategize about how to cover excessive workloads.
  • Help your boss learn that other people—and not just you—can serve her as well.

A much-used word for this type of TOT is "no," as they assert their power. They are also heard saying things like, "can't," "don't ask again," "because I don't want to," and so on. Their decisions may be bad ones, but nevertheless, the declarations have been made. For many stubborn TOTs, compromise takes them out of their comfort zone. In other cases, they feel it diminishes their stature.

What to do

  • Use positive language to relax your boss when he's stuck in a stubborn rut.
  • Know that it's easier for TOTs to be more flexible if there's something in it for them.
  • Offer choices and compromises that empower your TOT.

You steer clear of the boss's door because she requested privacy as she puts the finishing touches on her report. Three hours later you enter her office and not only has she neglected her work, but she is crafting the world's longest paper clip chain. TOTs like this suffer from BADD — Boss Attention Deficit Disorder. They're only interested in what seems important at any given moment in time and have trouble paying attention to you.

What to do

  • Make communications compelling. Present your thoughts in a powerful, interactive way to prevent detours.
  • Add a pinch of excitement. Use props, visual aids, and humor to keep your manager engaged and on target.
  • Manage interruptions. Schedule formal meetings (outside your TOT's office if possible), so that your boss will be better prepared — and less likely to lose focus.

There's a good chance you've encountered more than one TOT in you career. Who knows, maybe you even act like one yourself on occasion. Just remember, to "TOT is human," and anyone can fall prey to it. Everyone can play a role in humanizing the workplace with greater sensitivity to what's really behind that facade.