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Coping with a toxic boss: “SUSIE THE SUGAR COATER”

By Linnda Durre, Ph.D., Author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace – Protect Yourself Against Co-workers Bosses and Work Environments That Poison Your Day published by McGraw Hill, February 19, 2010.

As a business and corporate consultant and psychotherapist, I’ve analyzed, worked with, and consulted with many difficult bosses over the years.  In order to cope and deal with them, you need to know why they act the way they do and how best to deal with them, in order to earn their respect, get things accomplished, change negative situations to positive ones, and preserve your sanity.
 
In my twice-monthly column, I will help you cope with a different type of boss, whether male or female. The previous ones include: Dick the Dictator, Bashia the Backstabber, Sewell the Sexual Harasser, Carl the Control Freak, Paula the Passive Aggressive, Clayton the Clueless, and Greta the Gossip.

This week I discuss one of the trickiest bosses to deal with — Susie the Sugar Coater. I’m all for positive thinking, clear intention, and hard work to pull something out of the fire. However, when the positive thinking has morphed into delusion – then you’re in LALA land, as Susie can be. It’s best to be direct. You may even have to go to HR.
 
SITUATION: Susie the Sugar Coater hates being direct, confrontive, or blunt so she sugar coats everything she says and does with sweetness, smiles, and pleasantries. She avoids negativity at all costs, doesn’t like to see or deal with anything unpleasant, turns a blind eye to harsh realities, and is in denial about the dark side of life, all of which can be dangerous.  She can seem like a “flake” or a “space cadet” to those clear sighted realists who wonder about her distortions. Susie is an ostrich in the sand and her avoidance of certain facts can doom a company to financial failure, law suits, and government crackdowns. She will put on her rose-colored glasses and put a whitewash over a rotted, termite ridden fence. Sometimes she does this to save money, to save face, and to save her own job. What she doesn’t save is the company or its employees.  Ah, the irony!  
 
EXPLANATION: Susie was probably raised by a mother who told her that being direct was impolite and taught her how to get her way by sugar coating everything – how to manipulate her father and other people with sweet talk, flattery, flirtations, and kindness. Perhaps her father shielded his wife and Susie from all negativity and she never developed coping skills to face the difficulties of life herself. And maybe her husband continues that pattern with her as well. Susie is afraid of bluntness, honesty, and the hard truth because it’s too painful for her to accept the harsh realties of life. Susie can be fragile, living in an imaginary world where she has to pretend that things are better than they seem. 
 
In your gut, you don’t trust Susie because you know she’s not inherently honest with herself, and she can’t be depended upon to tell you the truth. So she’s not the person to bring you the bad news about the sales figures, finances, or the stock prices because you’re not going to get an accurate picture. She is not the person to have at the forefront of a company or even heading a department because her “rose colored glasses” can misinterpret statistics, data, facts, and warnings, if they don’t conform to her lofty and sanitized vision of the world. She’s living in “The Truman Show” or in “Pleasantville” where everything is perfect. Not reality, folks.
 
Susie’s skills are better utilized in organizing social events, greeting people as the event planner or concierge, where she likes to please people and be helpful. She can be a useful and effective receptionist or a telephone operator, guiding people to the right person. She makes a gracious hostess and an excellent convention, wedding, and party planner. 
 
She should NOT be running a division, department or company where the bad news needs to be confronted, accepted quickly, and dealt with effectively and efficiently to save jobs, reputations, and customers. You need a realist, a take charge person, and a grounded pragmatist in a position of leadership who has solid values, guts, backbone, and executive ability to solve the problems that confront them immediately, not procrastinate, and to do all of that in a positive manner.
 
So you need to have your facts assembled when you confront her – show her the facts and figures vs. her interpretation of them.  You need to be direct and blunt with Susie to break through her refusal to accept reality, which can be like taking a jackhammer to break through the concrete of her denial. You may need an extra person, like the HR department head.  Bring duplicates to give her and the HR head of your fact sheets, plus any and all supporting emails, documents, letters, and reports to indicate where her interpretations have led the department and company down the wrong, wasteful, and wobbly path to destruction. Visuals like charts, graphs, and spread sheets are helpful to show her and others what is wrong and where her spin on the facts went awry.
 
Be especially diligent about compiling these facts since Susie doesn’t like to accept reality or responsibility. She can set you up the take the blame for her incompetence, negligence, and denial, by stating that YOU didn’t give her the proper facts and figures.
 
Guard against that at all costs. Keep a log, journal, and document with emails, always cc’ing them to higher ups, coworkers, and other departments.

SOLUTION: “Susie, I appreciate your social graces, pleasantness, optimism, and sweetness. Sometimes I find that you sugar coat the truth because you don’t want to say how bad things are and I find that you avoid any negativity. I’d much rather have you tell me the truth than put a spin on it. I like to deal with reality and then do all I can to change it, rather than go along thinking that everything is OK and find out later that it’s not. It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Denial is a dangerous coping mechanism. 
 
So please tell me the truth about things because I like to confront problems directly and I’d like you to do that, too.  I’d like to continue working cooperatively with you, and I’d like to know that we’re all grounded in reality in this department and in this company. I want to feel that I’m a flying Wallenda and that you’re my net. And I don’t feel that when you distort the facts to suit your unrealistic vision of the circumstances. I’ve brought copies of charts and graphs with me for you and many examples of where I feel you twisted the facts in a way to show things in a more positive light than is the reality and you need to see them. Let’s discuss how we can work together and how you can see things more realistically. Here are the specific examples we need to discuss. Thank you for listening!”
 
Perhaps your discussion with her will wake her up to the fact that she is “the wrong tool for the job.” Her own bosses may spot the misaligned fit in her skill set vs. her job description and move her to a place where her traits and abilities will shine. Perhaps you and others in your department can discuss this with the HR department. Then they can make a recommendation to the higher ups about transferring Susie to a better suited position. Bring copies for HR to document your case and prove your point. Going with others makes your case stronger, and if not, go by yourself. Be direct, factual, and cc Susie’s boss and/or your boss as well. CYB!

—Linnda Durré, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, business consultant, corporate trainer, national speaker, and columnist. She has hosted and co-produced two live call-in TV shows, including “Ask The Family Therapist” on America’s Health Network, which was associated with Mayo Clinic and aired from Universal Orlando. She is the author of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against Co-Workers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day” (2010 – McGraw-Hill). www.survivingthetoxicworkplace.com She has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Daytime, Good Morning America, and The O’Reilly Factor (twice), and the national and/or local news on ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, Fox and CW. She has written for Forbes, Orlando Business Journal, and American Cities Business Journals. She is the host and producer of “The Linnda Durré Show,” which airs daily on 810 AM Radio in Central Florida and streams live on global audio on computers at www.BIG810AM.com M-F from 12-1 PM (ET). For more information about her consulting or speaking, contact her at Linnda.Durre@gmail.com and 407-739-8620.

Coping with a toxic boss: “SUSIE THE SUGAR COATER”
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