The easiest way to deal with a lousy boss? Quit and go to work somewhere else.
But who can do that today? With unemployment at 9.8 percent and White House economist Christina Romer telling a congressional panel recently that it is likely to remain "at its severely elevated level" through 2010, few employees have that luxury.
Jim Camp, a Dublin, Ohio, executive coach who has consulted with the FBI on hostage negotiation tactics, believes there are less extreme measures you can take that will work just as well. He insists that you can overcome any boss problem with skilled negotiating.
Most supervisor screw-ups stem from a boss's inability to make decisions and communicate a set of goals, he maintains. "When he can't create a vision, the boss becomes toxic."
Employees can help such supervisors by asking a series of what Camp calls "interrogatory questions." Has the boss given you a set of tasks with an impossible deadline? "Help him flesh out why he's done that," suggests Camp, who has run Camp Negotiating Systems, his coaching company, for 22 years. Ask questions like, "What's our long-term aim with these tasks?" he says. "How important is it that these be put together by the end of the day?"
What if the boss tells you to shut up and follow orders? Camp suggests saying something like, "I really desperately want to get this done properly; you've got to help me. I've got to see what you see here." Camp calls this "negotiating an agenda."
Camp points to T. J. Rogers, the founder and chief executive officer of Cypress Semiconductor. Rogers is a longtime Camp client and fan who wrote a favorable blurb for Camp's second book, "No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home." Camp says that despite all that, Rogers responds favorably to employees who ask him direct, focused questions. "You can bring him right back to reality," Camp notes.
What about abusive bosses who curse out workers? Camp says negotiating works with even those jerks. "The real problem is their own shortcomings that cause them to be like that," he says. He suggests you say the following: "Boss, I've got to ask you a tough question, and please don't get any madder at me and yell at me. How long do I have to take these tirades before I can help you be more effective?"
If your boss is the type who routinely belittles employees in front of others, intervene with a question, Camp recommends. Before the meeting gets started, raise your hand and say, "Could I ask you a difficult question? Where do I stand on the belittling block today?" Or, less aggressively, visit the boss before the meeting and ask, "How do I participate in the next meeting and really bring value to you?"
Those of us who have worked for bosses with ingrained personality problems may have doubts about Camp's method. Will that hyper, anxious boss who piles on extra work and even abuse when she's feeling tense really respond to negotiation? Camp feels certain she will. Besides, he says, the alternative is unacceptable. "You've got to help your boss solve the problem," he says, "or live miserably for the rest of your life on the job."