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, Bill the Big Picture Boss, Dan the Detail Boss, Ellery the Yeller, Sandy the Snob, Blaine the Blamer, Winnie the Whiner, Eric the Erratic,Hy the Hider, and Christine the Cruel.
Robert the Rule Monger follows the letter of the law, even when the rules are counterproductive to productivity, efficiency, and profit. He may do it in a variety of styles: 1) a harsh, cruel, and vindictive manner laced with sadism and viciousness 2) a cold, robotic, Standard Operating Procedure – SOP – manner without any feelings for others or demonstrating any feelings of his own whatsoever or 3) a combination of the above.
If you don’t follow the rules, Robert will threaten you with being written up, reported to his boss and to HR, and he will make life a living nightmare for you. His behavior, which seems crazy, will shock, infuriate, and hurt you. Robert will always find a rule that you are breaking, violating, or bending. And if he can’t find one, he’ll usually make one up to justify his power and he’ll do it just to scare you.
Working for Robert is like walking through a land mine field. An explosion could happen at any second. You’ve begun to have symptoms of PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – nightmares, insomnia, ulcers, eating disorders, anxiety, fears, phobias, depression, crying spells, suicidal ideation, fatigue, and hopelessness, just to name a few. Your spouse and family are worried about you. You want to quit but you need the job, the money, and you have bills to pay. How much are you willing to put up with before you get out of there?
The Roberts of the world are found everywhere. Just as in the book, TV and cable movies, and films of “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo, they are the Javerts of the world – pursuing someone for years for stealing a loaf of bread. They will try to outsmart you at every turn and find errors and rule breaking that you have done to make you look like a criminal. In fact, they may even report you to the authorities, inflating a minor infraction into a felony, or making something up out of nothing, so get witnesses if you can, document everything, put it all in writing, make and keep copies, cc people who will help you, get an attorney if you have to, and lock all documents in your safety deposit box in case of a law suit.
Robert the Rule Monger probably suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or he may be an Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). These disorders are characterized by rigid thinking, compulsive behavior, obsessive thoughts, ritualized habits, and the inability if not refusal to break the habits, all of which is fueled by fear and terror. Robert may have had very harsh, cruel, authoritarian parents – like some (not all) judges, ministers, military personnel, police officers, etc. – who kept him under their thumb and did the same thing to him that he is doing to you. Underneath he is frightened, terrified of authority, and afraid of being wrong, violating the law, and being fired. But when he’s the authority and in power, then he wields it like an axe and your head may be on the chopping block next.
Robert is a company “yes man” in the worst sense of the definition. The boss or corporation says “Jump!” and Robert says, “How high?” He will do anything for the higher ups and the company and is loyal beyond seeing reason or folly. Robert is a security minded person to the max with his eye on his pension and benefits and he will not jeopardize his future. Robert feels his adherence to following the rules will get him promotions, raises, and earn him good favor with his bosses, HR, and the company. And sometimes it does with a few exceptions, one being if his method is counterproductive.
The sad thing is that his rigidity about the rules is creating animosity, resentment, and anger in his department. It is impeding productivity, cooperation, and camaraderie and he’s probably losing the company a great deal of money because no one is taking risks, thinking out of the box, or coming up with innovative ideas because they’re all so concerned about being fired or breaking a rule. His department usually breeds an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and paranoia. No one wants to confront Robert for fear of being fired themselves.
Working for someone like Robert makes you act like an abused child – you think if you follow all the rules and keep your room (desk) clean, finish your homework (reports), and do your job (chores) that Robert will like you and get off your case. NOT SO! He will come up with even more rules for you to follow! There is nothing you can do please Robert because he is an OCD person with an endless list of infractions that you have committed and will add more rules if he has the power to do so. And if he doesn’t, he will get permission from the higher ups to do so.
Robert operates from a win/lose philosophy where he always wins and his aim is for you to always lose. He loves to make people wrong and always “one ups” you – or “one downs” you, as the case may be. He criticizes constantly, telling you what you are doing incorrectly and rarely will he tell you what you are doing right. He never compliments you, only humiliates and negates you. He is such a toxic person.
It may feel like you are working in “The Twilight Zone” or a place similar to an office in a Franz Kafka novel – unpredictable, unfair, irrational, illogical, with no explanations except, “These are the rules and they must be followed,” or as they say in the Harry Potter books about Voldemort, “He who must be obeyed.” You may fear for your sanity and feel like you’re headed for a padded cell in a locked ward, with no hard objects, being fed mashed bananas with a spoon. And you might be with this kind of toxic boss.
There are several options when you have Robert for a boss:
1) In a pleasant, gentle, and non-confrontation manner, you may want to point out the inefficiency, silliness, or insanity of the arbitrary rules or the contradictions that seem evident to you. Be prepared for Robert to adhere to the party line and to ignore your complaints or informative suggestions. He may also put you and your suggestions down and make fun of you. He also may be verbally vicious and cut you to the core with insults, so be prepared. He doesn’t usually listen to reason or suggestions. Remember, he is coming from abject terror of doing anything wrong and being fired, punished, and/or humiliated himself. He will defend himself and the rules to the death.
2) You can go to Robert’s boss or to HR, but, if they are just like Robert, you will probably not get anywhere. They may believe Robert is doing a good job and, until they get statistics and facts that his department or division is losing money, they will not listen to you. See if you can find statistics to validate the decline of profits, productivity, and efficiency. Unfortunately, most business leaders only move when money is at stake. They usually don’t care about morale, camaraderie, or cooperation. They fail to see you can make tons of money in a positive, productive work environment.
3) If the higher ups or HR are on to Robert and feel that he is creating a bad environment, there is a possibility they will fire him or transfer him to another department. You can appeal to them to do so. But remember, Robert is so crafty that he may have blackmail information on them on how his bosses or superiors “broke the rules or violated the law” and they simply won’t let him go because he knows too much and has dirt on them.
4) If Robert’s own boss or the higher ups are not intimidated or scared of him, go to them. They may be able to reason with him, get him some training, or send him to psychotherapy or EAP. They may also put him where he belongs, which is in the Compliance Department or the Contracts Department, where his nitpicking, rule following skills can be utilized for the company’s benefit and where he may have minimal contact with employees. But remember again, Robert may know things about his own boss or higher ups and their own rule infractions that he can use against them for his own job security so he can’t be fired.
5) Seeking individual psychotherapy, joining a therapy support group, and reading about OCD, toxic bosses, and workplace communication skills (like my book, “Surviving the Toxic Workplace”) may help you understand and cope with Robert, and remember – it’s only a temporary Band-Aid. Robert will probably never change. What is the cost to your mental and physical health? How long can you last?
6) Ask for a transfer to another department or division within the company so you don’t have to have direct contact with Robert and then you can keep your tenure, benefits, and pension.
7) If the entire company, including your own boss, is full of Roberts, then you probably will need to get out, find another job, and leave as quickly as possible.
8) If you can get a good recommendation letter from Robert, get it before you leave. But asking for it will be a “tip off” to him that you are job hunting. Your best bet is to get the rec letter from someone else at the company because Robert probably won’t give you one. Leave for a new position, but line it up BEFORE you hand in your resignation.
I hope these suggestions help you deal with Robert the Rule Monger.
—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 the 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, as well as by WSJ, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Investor’s Business Daily, Business Week, Job Week, Career Builder, Law Office Administrator, and many more. She has written for Forbes, AOL, 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.