BY ALAN BRUNACINI
Last month I related a story that involved a young cadet assigned as my airport chauffeur (after I taught a seminar in his department) telling me about his ongoing observations about his chief. I had detected in our classes that the troops were a bit out of balance, and I had asked the young man why. He told me that the chief could not control himself when he exerted the authority of his position and that that inclination continually distorted his relationships within the organization.
It is useful to “stop off” on our journey up the capability hierarchy to visit about the subject of how bosses use the power of their position. Many power goofs disable boss capability, and unless that person can understand the effect of that behavior and then correct it, he will either be paralyzed or go backward on the capability scale. The cadet describing his chief is an excellent example of this process. The story is simple: The department was in the initial stages of purchasing a new, small rescue response vehicle; the chief assigned an apparatus committee to determine the specs. The committee did that. The truck was ordered. When it was received, it was different from what the committee had ordered. The chief indicated he changed some things after the committee had decided on the design details. He never met with them to advise them of the changes he made.
The chief’s unilaterally deciding to change some vehicle design details, as the cadet said, “Because he could,” is a very consistent/critical major power goof. This behavior (in the cadet’s story) had upset the workforce-the latest dysfunctional way the big boss showed he is the big boss. My long-time observation is that firefighters are typically very effective at maintaining an awareness of the organizational details of the system they work in; that includes the identity of the chief. Of all the legitimate concerns that go with the big boss job, the chief should not waste time disrupting the good order by abusing his power by establishing his identity.
How organizational authority and influence are used is mostly the result of the chief’s basic personality. It is difficult to predict the true nature of a person’s “power DNA” until that person becomes a boss. That promotion (over others) creates the show time that will reflect his basic personal profile. Sometimes, there is a great difference in someone’s behavior before power (BP) and after power (AP). This is particularly obvious to those who work for that boss.
As a long-time observer of how bosses handle power, I have watched bosses and have noted in my little pocket note pad what I saw, heard, and was told. The list of behaviors focuses on negative boss behaviors so we can study them and try to improve on them. The list is not meant to be clinical or academic. It is just the result of a very old management student watching and recording boss behaviors for a long time and listening to the reaction of workers who are on the receiving end of those behaviors. In fairness, most bosses routinely apply the positive versions of these behaviors, and we should celebrate their positive performances.
Note: I realize I have gone way past the number of bullet points they teach in Article Writing 101. The reason is that the items on the list describe a specific, separate behavior that seriously and directly reduces (or eliminates) a boss’s effectiveness. There are so many of them because virtually anything and everything a boss does is affected, conditioned, and influenced by his use of personal and positional power. We say over and over that the only thing we can control is ourselves; thus, the ability to start or stop doing the negative thing resides in the person who engages in that behavior. It might be useful for serious boss students to copy the list, put it in their day timer, and occasionally use it to evaluate their behavior.
Power Goofs of Bosses
- They are abusive in ways that cause results that range from hurt feelings to disrupted careers.
- They threaten talented subordinates.
- They kiss up/kick down.
- They like the limelight: “front and centeritus.”
- They are given to continuous self-aggrandizement: status seeking (letters behind the name, pictures/name/title on everything, and so on).
- They regard everyone as rivals; they are excessively competitive.
- They make the job and the boss bigger than they are.
- They exert themselves in the wrong way/at the wrong time.
- They steal, hoard, and mismanage credit, continually inflating their own performance/status.
- They assault, murder, or kidnap ideas for personal attention and credit.
- They are preoccupied with how they look instead of how they are doing (appearance freak).
- They play someone else’s role, do someone else’s job instead of their own, operate outside of their assigned “lane.”
- They possess the uncontrollable urge to unnecessarily “fix,” change, or alter things by adding their “fingerprints” on them.
- They strategically create problems (generally “slow balls”) so they can solve them and then take credit.
- They cannot take “yes” for an answer.
- They act as bullies.
- They automatically say, “I”/”me”/”mine” in every statement about anything positive (the “I” person).
- They use careless, inappropriate, and untruthful language.
- They brag about hitting a triple when they were actually born on third base.
- They believe that being “nice” is a weakness.
- They create a reward for others to (competitively) bring news to them before anyone else gets the news (reporting race to the boss).
- They give inordinate credit to those who shower attention, flattery on them.
- They use their position to always put (and then dominate) subordinates and others at a disadvantage.
- They act in a way that always shows others that they are in charge.
- They confuse monologue (me lecturing) with dialogue (us conversing).
- They play goofy information games (information is power) and manipulate information in a self-serving way.
- They irritate others, are abrasive, and aggravate people (because they can) to keep them off balance (just plain poor manners).
- They lack social radar (close their eyes when they open their mouth).
- They keep self-made, unnecessary secrets to keep others in suspense and off balance; divulge confidential information.
- They operate with a double standard and continually play favorites.
- They withhold approval until the other person complies or behaves in a boss-approved way.
- They overcomplicate a simple process and then hide in the confusion.
- They practice cronyism: allocate resources, assignments, and projects based on politically motivated friend/enemy, insider/outsider, okay/not okay relationships.
- They are preoccupied with being shown respect and their reputation and act out in revenge.
- They create and then patrol overdefined and unnecessary organizational levels.
- They are rude/mean/uncivil to keep people off balance.
- They continually lose their temper; they are chronically angry and yelling (“rageaholic”).
- They overreact (tantrum) when they don’t get their way or what they want.
- They are personally disloyal, backstabbers.
- They employ excessive/hurtful verbal sarcasm.
- They are disruptively impatient.
- They are dishonest (will end up in jail eventually).
- They are aloof and unapproachable.
- They are organizational hermits-they hide out to avoid contact, controversy, or anything or anybody “messy.”
- They have a messed up sense of timing: They take too long to decide or decide too quickly.
- They always demand an excessive level of detail that confuses, frustrates, and kills action (paralysis by analysis).
- They are excessively risk adverse: They always play it safe, never take a smart chance, and think the sky is falling (yellow light is always on).
- They create organizational fear as a control measure.
- They do not understand the dynamics of feelings; they are emotionally illiterate.
- They are poor listeners.
- They have a closed mind to progress that involves change, discomfort, or additional effort- anything that disrupts the status quo.
- They never ever forgive/forget; they continually bring up past mistakes, missteps, or misjudgments.
- They fail to recognize that or behave as if they have a boss.
- They are excessively preoccupied with the prerogatives of their position (they continually patrol the perimeter of their job description).
- They make others wrong so they can be “right.”
- They are untrainable/unteachable/impossible to help.
- They are artificially expanding the importance of their role/job/performance to look good (occupational narcissism).
- Their ego has partially or completely eaten their brain.
Every boss has the potential to do the things on the list, and we all have at one time (or more often) done many or all of them. Reading a list can be tedious, but it is a useful exercise to review the items and evaluate how we behave in relation to the negative use of power. Prevention is always smart; it generally prevents/reduces pain and is based on the knowledge of what we are trying to eliminate. It is difficult to avoid a behavior we have never thought about and develop a prevention plan to avoid that behavior. Along with developing that understanding, we will be effective if we can connect to some system that provides feedback on our personal effectiveness (how we behave) and then supports and assists us in correcting the dysfunctional behavior and developing a new, better way of operating.
A major element in improving feedback on a boss’s personal performance intelligence is to improve our perspective of time. We should develop an imaginary mental “time dial” that creates the mental ability for a boss to toggle time backward and forward from the present. Bosses must evaluate the current situation and then direct and influence workers to perform so they can create a problem-solving outcome. As the boss does the size-up in the beginning of the current situation and then quickly twists the time dial backward and reviews his (past) experience files that relate to similar situations, that backward view quickly provides a snapshot of what occurred, how the boss behaved, the action that was taken, and the result of that action. Effective bosses have refined the accuracy of connecting past/now/future to continually improving their performance.
The main focus of this time management process is to evaluate how past boss action helped or hurt the outcome. Being able to employ this almost instant use of power flashback becomes the practical essence and real value of “experience.” If we cannot develop the ability to do this time-toggle routine, we will be destined to repeat mistakes, flubs, and bad/sad event endings. All a boss can control is his personal resources; this approach involves applying the grades and lessons on report cards of our previous performance so we can achieve an effective, positive outcome of the current situation.
A very old observation on life says, “If you keep doing what you did, you will keep getting what you got.” That can be positive or negative. Let’s study both and then create the positive.
Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.