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 column, I will help you cope with a different type of boss, whether male or female. And remember – all of these toxic bosses in all of my columns can be of either gender. Toxicity does not discriminate according to the sexes. 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, Greta the Gossip, Susie the Sugar Coater, Ian the Idea Stealer, Al the Alcoholic, Nancy the Narcissist, Donald the Deal Maker, Vernon the Verbal Attacker, Bobby the Boss’s Relative, Cynthia the Silent Treatment Torturer, Phil the Philanderer, Ned the Negligent, Sal the Slave Driver, Porter the Political Soap Boxer, Michael the Micromanager, Wade the One Upper, Betty the Battle Axe, Phoebe the Phony, Peter the Pig, and Bill the Big Picture Boss.
My last column was about Bill the Big Picture Boss – the visionary who sees the end of the project, the deal, the building, the merger – but can’t handle how to get there or anything to do with the day to day plans of making it happen and puts it all in your lap without giving you any assistance, guidance, or direction.
His opposite is Dan the Detail Boss – the guy who can’t see the end but is great with the specifics and all the details that have to be accomplished in a project. If these two people could work together, they would make a powerful team that could accomplish a great deal. They complement each other – one’s strength is the other’s weakness and vice versa. The sad part is that most of them don’t see that and they put each other down, minimizing each other’s strengths because they lack those qualities, instead of seeing how perfectly they fit together.
Dan can execute efficiently when given a project and he knows all the steps in getting it done, but there are times he “can’t see the forest from the trees,” and that’s when he needs someone like Bill to point the way so he doesn’t get bogged down in the minutia. Perhaps you are able to stand in and perform that function, and perhaps not.
Let’s look at two phrases – “God is in the details” and “The devil is in the details.”
Here’s how I define both: the first means that attention needs to be paid with extreme love, care, and concern to each and every detail if you are committed to excellence in all you do, in creating outstanding products and services.
“The devil is in the details” means that it can take too much time to accomplish a goal and because of the details, conflict develops over the smallest things, egos get in the way, power and control issues arise, and arguments may develop. That is when things take a turn for the worst, which needs to be avoided. Sometimes things can get delayed, held up, postponed, cancelled or never finished because of the details.
I like to use the first phrase – “God is in the details” – by blessing the projects and giving the concern and love to each of the necessary details, paying attention to the small things that deserve expert care.
Dan may suffer from OCD – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – which is characterized by a need for order and control in their lives and working environments, a resistance to change or anything new, and needing rituals. It is the woman who can’t leave her house without the dishes being cleaned or the man who has to comb the fringe on his living room rug before he gets in the car. All of this tightly wound is motivated by fear – he feels he will be perceived as incompetent, foolish, or a buffoon if he doesn’t do something perfectly.
When you ask him for help, Dan will usually say, “Don’t bother me I’m busy.” He has a tendency to work alone, not ask for help, and isolate himself to get his assignments finished. He has a great deal of compulsive drive, having to finish a task and do it 100%. While that can be admirable, it sometimes is not realistic. Projects need time and they need to be broken down into accomplishable steps. Team work is also expected and many times Dan is not a team player.
Dan usually needs to be given the instructions and the specifics of a project because many times he lacks the vision and “the big picture.” You may not feel helpless, lost, and confused with Dan like you felt with Bill, but Dan gets so involved in minutia that he wastes time and misses deadlines. He may shut you out, preferring to do it all by himself. Be careful you don’t get blamed for things on the project.
Dan is usually good completing paperwork and details. He remembers deadlines and works hard to meet them but Dan may use excuses and blames others when he can’t “be perfect.” You will probably feel frustrated and you need to say something to keep him on track, going forward.
As with Bill the Big Picture Boss, it may be the difference between right brain and left brain functioning – the creative, holistic, and non-linear vs. the logical, linear, and systematic. Dan is just wired this way.
One way to confront Dan is to get help from someone else in the department. If there is a person – let’s call him Allan – who sees things the way Dan does but is also good with pushing him along, then Allan should be Dan’s second in command. Ask Allan to take over your job and be Dan’s assistant.
If there is no one like Allan in your office, you simply have to tell Dan yourself in a tactful way and get him to move faster, delegate some of the work to you and others in the department. Describe your frustration and how you want to assist him in finishing the project, but that you are afraid of making a mistake. Stress that you a member of a team and that everyone on the project wants to work together to meet the deadlines.
You and/or Allan must be tactful when confronting Dan about his myopia, obsession with detail, and slowing down the project. Do it privately and ask him to listen, stop all his other projects for a few minutes, and look at you when you’re speaking. Tell him how you feel, that you need him to let you help him, that he’s losing precious time being bogged down with minutia, and that he needs to delegate to make the deadlines.
Keep a schedule book of when things are due, deadlines, meetings, and trips. Keep track of your role in all of it. Print out your emails in case you need a paper trail of what you did, what you asked Dan to do, and his responses. Dan may try to make you “the fall guy” and blame you when deadlines are missed, so keep documentation – emails, voice mails, memos, etc. – to prove you did everything you could to remind him.
If you don’t want to talk to Dan yourself and if there is no one like Allan in the office, then muster the bravery and go to Dan’s boss. His reputation, promotions and/or raises usually depend on his performance and that of his underlings. Hopefully, he or she will be grateful to you, will listen to you, and will talk to Dan him/herself.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, perhaps HR will assist you. The productivity of the company is at stake and they need to know that.
If none of that works, you may need to ask for a transfer to another department from HR. Going to work each day feeling like your clueless, drowning, shut out of the loop or fearful you’ll be blamed for the delays isn’t the way to live. Identify your expertise and use that to the best of the company. Tell them what you’re great at and that you want to shine in your specialty area. Perhaps you can find a department or a mentor in the company that will approve the transfer. If not, then look for another job or learn how to be more assertive with Dan.
I hope these tips will help you in dealing with Dan the Detail Boss.
—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). The book’s website is: www.survivingthetoxicworkplace.com
She has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Daytime, Good Morning America, Canada AM, 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, CareerBuilder, Monster, A&U Magazine, Orlando Business Journal, and American Cities Business Journals. For more information about her consulting or speaking, contact her at Linnda.Durre@gmail.com and 407-739-8620.