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How to thwart the don’t-be-right Midwest technology boss

CHICAGO – All the way through school, you studied hard to get the right answer. On those first job interviews after graduation, you tried hard to say the right thing.

Through your career, you've carefully watched and listened and learned so you can excel in your field and do the right thing at the right time. Ha ha! Joke's on you! Sometimes, for some Midwest high-tech workers, being right can be a big mistake.

I'm talking about a subspecies of the genus Bossus Horribilus, a large category of people who should never have been promoted to management in the first place.

While there are all sorts of bad bosses, the one under our microscope this week is the sort who can't allow anyone under him or her to have the right answer, do the right thing or in any way labor under the delusion that they are competent.

This boss is right and you are wrong. I worked for a boss like this. Not long after accepting the job, I had lunch with a friend who knew this fellow at a previous company.
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"Oh no," she said. "You work for him? Let me give you some advice: never express an opinion. Your opinion will be wrong. Not only will it be wrong, it will be so unspeakably idiotic that he will burn you with his withering gaze."

I thought she was kidding. I lived to learn differently.

Some bosses are so insecure that the word "insecurity" hardly does the job. It's more like a pathological need to be the best, the smartest and the most in charge at every moment.

Anyone who arrives at a reasonable conclusion or has a cogent realization or otherwise shows any brain activity at work is a threat to this person’s authority and must be squashed like a bug.

One thing about my don’t-be-right boss was his “he’s only” running bit. Here's how that one worked.

You'd mention someone of prominence in the industry (perhaps someone you met at a conference, were introduced to or were scheduled to meet). You'd say: "I have a meeting with Chuck Smith. I don't know if you know him."

The wrong-to-be-right boss would say: "Chuck Smith? He’s only the leading guy in the [blah blah blah]." It was the only that told you what a moron you were for not knowing Chuck's full bio and resume.

It got to be a running joke after a while.

One of us in the company would ask another employee: "Has the guy from Kinko's come yet? You know, Gary? The one with the red Mohawk?" Another person would say: "Gary? You mean Gary? He’s only the [blah blah blah]."

It got to be a joke. Still, the boss didn't let up. If you heard a piece of industry news, he heard something more current. If you had an insight, he would trump you. If you had an innovative idea, he would throw up on it and then introduce it a week later as a new topic by his design.

Many of us have had bosses like this. Our blood pressure suffers. That's no good for our health.

Plus, having a no-one's-right-but-me boss can turn co-workers into competitors for the right to be nearly right. That's toxic. Here are some ways to cope with the righter-than-thou manager who will serve you better than a sock on the jaw.

1) Use humor

An insecure boss is often an aggressive boss, and worse, a passive-aggressive boss who doesn't show his hostility outright. It comes out in ways like: "You poor thing. You don't even know how to do that?"

With a person like this, you have to use humor. Humor does two things: it defuses the tension and shows the boss that you don't take the situation or his hostility and threatening all that seriously.

If an evil boss says: "Really, Eric, I'm not sure why I hired you," you smile and reply: "Don't sweat it, Jane. You won't make that mistake again." The key with humor is to be straight about it rather than sarcastic.

Ha ha, I can take your insulting joke and here's one back. Isn't it fun to be jocular at work?

2) Use the fog technique

There is something called the “fog technique” in which you essentially ignore the insulting comment your boss just made. Let it sail by, don't react and keep talking about whatever you were talking about. This is sort of a way of neutralizing the boss who is trying to put you down.

You’re signaling that you didn’t even hear the person. You're treating the insults like a nervous twitch that’s just ignored.

This is good because you're showing that the comments don't get to you. Think about the staff on the Larry Sanders Show (late at night on HBO): no one took him that seriously. He could rant and rave and everyone knew how to handle him.

3) Call them on It

If your boss is the only one in the room allowed to be right, he's going to have to come up with a lot of ideas. Over time, some of those will be recycled ideas that originally floated and got shot down in earlier meetings.

Call your boss on that in a soft but direct way.

When he says: "I think we should do [blah blah blah]," say to him: "yes, we all liked Scott's idea on that. We had this and that issue. How do we surmount those?" Let him know that he can't steal other people's ideas and that you guys are onto him.

4) Stick with the facts

A hostile and insecure boss is a boss who can push buttons. It's important to keep the conversation on the facts.

If you say to your boss: "I just came from engineering and the FX15 project is two weeks behind schedule" and she replies: "That's very bad information because it's actually three weeks behind schedule," you can bite your tongue, take a breath and say: "Let's look into that.

“That's interesting. We should figure out why you heard three weeks and I heard two weeks. Let's look at the schedule."

You're not challenging or being challenged. You're behaving like a scientist and just investigating the facts. Oftentimes, of course, the boss will be wrong on the facts because she's giving the reply she gave only in order to one up you.

Don't react to that victory, either. It's all about the right answer and it's all about the team.

You can survive the don't-be-right boss. Many of us have and have the war stories to show for it. I really believe that working for difficult people is a blessing because we learn so much from them.

Remember, you are equal to the situation. It's a sort of chess match where your ability to stay cool is a vital factor. So smile, fog, talk facts and remember: a boss who only allows himself the right to be right is a leader with no followers.

Write and tell us your workplace stories at lizryan@worldwit.org.

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Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at lizryan@worldwit.org. Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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