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Liz Ryan Contributor

I write about bringing life to work and bringing work to life. full bio →

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

I was a Fortune 500 HR SVP for ten million years, but I was an opera singer before I ever heard the term HR. The higher I got in the corporate world, the more operatic the action became. I started writing about the workplace for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997, but it took me ages to find my own voice. Now I write for the Huffington Post, Business Week, LinkedIn, the Harvard Business Review, the Denver Post and Forbes.com and lead the worldwide Human Workplace movement to reinvent work for people. Stop by and join us: http://www.humanworkplace.com

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The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Leadership 2,360 views

Which Boss Is Worst: Screamer, Schemer, Or Snake In The Grass?

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hasn’t done much business travel before” and “Thank you for your kindness to Liz, who really doesn’t know anything about the protocol for sales meetings.”

My boss didn’t miss an opportunity to let everybody know that I was a rube who wouldn’t have been able to handle myself in public without her guidance.

I was horrified at first to see the fangs come out. I realized that I should have seen that coming. My boss wanted to play up my young-businessperson-in-need-of-schooling persona. She forgot one thing.

I knew our sales team way better than she did. I knew their kids’ names and their histories. We talked all the time. Salesperson after salesperson sidled up to me over the two-day meeting. “What is your boss’s problem?” they asked. “Why does she behave as though you’re a high school intern who knows nothing about business? You have saved my rear end more times than I can count, coordinating shipments from all over the country. Why does she treat you like an idiot?”

“You got me,” I said, but I knew. My boss didn’t want to be upstaged at the sales meeting. She figured that my age relative to hers would make her fake-ass Mentor/Protege act believable. She completely lost sight of how human relationships work.

On our final night she grandly invited all the salespeople to a restaurant for dinner and offered to pay for their meals.

She should have paid for their meals anyway, but it was ridiculous to ask fifty or sixty people to troop down the street and take over a restaurant together. She hadn’t called to make a reservation, asked me to do that, or likely ever given the issue of a closing dinner three seconds of thought.

She hadn’t done any planning. Of course, the arrival of a huge group put the restaurant’s kitchen in a tizzy. Our dinners came out of the kitchen unevenly over two hours and generally dampened the mood on our last evening together.

At the end of our group dinner, my boss said said to our server “Please bill these dinners to my room.” Fifty or sixty salespeople gaped at her, as did I too until I caught myself.

“Er, we’re not in our hotel,” I whispered across the table at my boss. “We’re on the same block, but this is a different building.” My boss didn’t have enough money available on her credit card to cover the bill. Sixty people got out their credit cards or cash to pay for their dinners.

I was so embarrassed on behalf of our company that I turned six or seven colors. I had no credit card at all back then. My boss lasted another few months at the company. I hope she evolved out of her snakelike form into human form and lost some of her fear along the way.

How do you deal with each of these unfortunate management types? You have to listen to your instinct. Your spidey sense will come in very handy when you’re up against a manager like the three described here. There is no policy that will help you then.

You can help a Screamer see that he or she is out of line, but only when the Screamer has calmed down from his or her latest screamfest. What is happening when a boss is losing it? He or she can’t deal with whatever is going on around him or her. All s/he knows how do in that situation is to holler about it.

Once you notice your boss’s condition, you can sometimes find ways to work around it and become a sort of service dog to your boss, gently nudging him or her out of situations where a scream attack is likely.

Sometimes you don’t care enough to do that, and one day you’ll get sick of the abuse and say “You may not scream at me or talk to me in that fashion.”

Sometimes the boss comes back to reality with a start, and sometimes you’re out of a job, but those are both good outcomes. Getting fired from a job working for a crazy or inappropriate boss is a learning experience.

Read this story if you’re worried about how to explain getting fired when you start job-hunting again.

The good thing about a Schemer boss is that the boss’s naked ambition puts you in a power position. Once the vault has opened and you’ve heard all about your manager’s plans for his or her own political ascension, you have some weight in the relationship. I hope you use it to tell the truth and keep your boss behaving in a human and professional fashion, at least with you.

You have more influence at work than you think.

The Snake in the Grass boss is a tough one. Many of us have fallen for a snake’s charms once or several times. The good news is that once we are bitten, we won’t be so easily hit by the same snake again. Life is all about learning, and wildly miscast bosses do their part to keep our muscles growing!



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