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What to do when your boss acts like a toddler

Image courtesy of Flickr user mdanys.

Age, as everyone knows, does not always go hand in hand with maturity. Which means that being the youngest person in the office doesn't always equate with being the brattiest. So what's an office newbie to do when those more senior to her are the ones running around throwing temper tantrums, making irrational demands and sulking if they don't get their way?

Managing up can be a real challenge for younger folks at work who struggle to know when and how to intervene and risk being perceived as bratty or demanding for trying to change the status quo. But it can be done according to Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job, who argues that thinking like a parent instead of an aggrieved employee is the key to mastering office politics.

But before they can get in touch with their inner parent and soothe their bratty bosses, junior-level employees need to assess how serious the situation is, Taylor said in an interview. All offices suffer from some degree of dysfunction, so you need to make sure your inexperience isn't leading you to make a mountain out of a molehill.

When you're new to the workplace it is difficult because you haven't been there before and you don't know where to draw the line between egregious and episodic bad behavior. One tip is to observe those around you and to see the reaction of others who are more senior. See if they look exasperated. Look at the emotions of those who have been through those hoops before. Are they just shrugging this behavior off their shoulders? You might even ask if this behavior continues if this is commonplace or should I feel this is anything personal. Of course you don't ask that the first day on the job.

Once you're sure that your cranky colleague's behavior merits intervention, Taylor suggests you get in touch with your inner parent, even if you're too young to have children of your own:

They can look back on their babysitting days or if they didn't babysit maybe they observed their parents or others around them. Human nature is the same whether you're two or 52. We all have the same basic fears, instincts and desires. It doesn't much matter what age you are because nobody is going to say, 'hey, you're 23! How dare you role model calmness? How dare you use humor and positive reinforcement?' When I talk about parenting skills without patronizing, what I'm talking about is becoming an office diplomat.

Diplomacy, Taylor explains boils down to "understanding that behind all the blustering of that boss is a terrible child that it often acting out of fear." Terrible boss behavior like stealing credit, employing put downs and all CAPS emails are usually caused by the boss's own stress, worries or self-absorption. Forget taking it personally and start thinking about how you can address the underlying emotions that are morphing your boss into an unreasonable two-year-old.

So what are these essential skills of parents that aspiring office diplomats can use to manage their immature and irrational co-workers? Taylor boils it down to a catchy acronym: CALM.

Communication. "Communicate with your boss open, honestly and frequently," says Taylor. "You have to be a catalysts for that communication, especially if your boss is running around trying to put out fires."

Anticipate. "Anticipate problems before they become larger problems and have solutions ready," suggests Taylor who feels like this is even more important for those who are green on the job, who often have a tendency to "bring their problems to the boss instead of bringing solutions."

Levity. Break tension, diffuse issues and punch through barriers with humor.

Managing Up. "Managing up doesn't mean kissing up. It means speaking the truth and setting expectations with your boss," says Taylor. No matter what age you are it does not behoove you to be a punching bag or be overloaded with work by your boss," she insists. So tell you boss - nicely - when her expectations are impossible and speak with her to set priorities. "You're setting limits just as you would as a good parent."

Stereotypes about young people's sense of entitlement do mean entry-level office diplomats need to be extra careful about their phrasing and approach, according to Taylor. "They have to work extra hard because they're coming to the situation with a stereotype that every other generation isn't saddled with." They should "watch the way they package it," she warns.
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