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Coping with a Toxic Boss – “AGGIE THE AGREER”

Surviving the Toxic Workplace, by Linnda DurreBy 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, Christine the Cruel,Robert the Rule Monger,Denny the Distorter, Orin the Orator, Snyder the Sniper, and Virgil the Virtual Boss.

SITUATION

There are usually four types of Aggie the Agreers, and they all share the same passive-aggressive, overriding, and dysfunctional trait – agreeing with you and then a) doing nothing, b) doing variations of exactly what you didn’t want, need, or ask for, or c) doing the exact opposite of what you asked her to do!  Dealing with Aggie the Agreer is frustrating and you want to scream. However, you must be diplomatic when dealing with Aggie, unless you don’t care, have another job lined up, and/or have decided to be fired or to quit in order to work for yourself or at another position.  If you have nothing to lose, then speak your truth. If you would rather maintain and not burn your bridges, be diplomatic and tactful. If my suggestions help, I’m pleased.

For easier identification, I have delineated the four types of this dysfunctional boss:

Aggie the Agreer #1 – warm, compassionate, caring, yet weak and ineffectual;

Aggie the Agreer #2 – cold,  lacking compassion, giving lip service, weak and ineffectual;

Aggie the Agreer #3 – feigning warmth and compassion, giving lip service, and sociopathic;

Aggie the Agreer #4 – cold, lacking compassion, giving lip service, and sociopathic.

Aggie the Agreer #1 usually nods, exudes total warmth, understanding, kindness, and compassion in agreeing with and comprehending you and your plight, pain, complaints, suggestions, anger, outrage, and/or demands for corrections. You walk out of the office feeling totally relieved, understood, and you believe she will remedy the situation immediately if not soon, just the way you asked for and how you want it to be. But Aggie disappoints you because she  a) usually does NOTHING to help remedy the situation or b) does variations of exactly what you didn’t want or c) does the exact opposite of what you asked!  This is because she is ineffectual, dominated by her own boss and/or the higher ups, and is weak.

Aggie the Agreer #2 has no warmth and compassion like Aggie #1;  she has a tone like a robot with a computer chip –  she sounds like “a Stepford employee” – programmed to state company policy with no caring, heart, passion, or concern, just like a telemarketer reading from a script. You know that she really could care less about you and your complaints.  This is because she is ineffectual, dominated by her own boss and/or the higher ups, and is weak, just like Aggie # 1.

She drones on and on, faking interest and concern, sounding like a bad and dull textbook version of an “Active Listening” seminar on Client-Centered Therapy, delivered by an ersatz Rogerian.  Dr. Carl Rogers, genius and founder of that revolutionary psychotherapy theory and practice, would be rolling over in his grave to hear such falseness and lack of genuine, unconditional positive regard.  [I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Dr. Rogers, and I gave seminars at his Center for the Study of Person in La Jolla, California, the town where I practiced for 19 years.]

Regardless of the delivery – compassionate warmth or computer chip  – Aggie #1 and Aggie # 2 are weak and ineffectual with no back bone. Both of them can be total wimps, with a persona like vanilla pudding – bland and neutral.  Depending on her is like building a house on sand.  There’s no foundation!  She will let you down constantly.  You will feel betrayed, frustrated, angry, upset, and even want to cry.

That happens because your expectations for her are to deliver normal, actionable results, but that is unrealistic for someone as weak as she is.  Aggie #1 and Aggie #2 may feel torn, emotionally paralyzed, and guilty – or she may just wimp out and hide – but she can’t and she won’t make the right decision, even when what you are asking may be totally reasonable, rational, logical, and helpful to you, others, and the company in general.

As a result, you have set yourself up for disappointment.  But don’t take it too personally because this is usually a repeating pattern that Aggie has with mostly everyone.  Fighting with her is like punching marshmallows.  You just waste your precious energy, feel exhausted, and nothing changes.  How she remains employed, no less has risen to the level of a boss, is anyone’s guess.  She may be a company “token” and/or she may be having or had a personal and/or sexual relationship with a higher up.  Who knows?!

Now we get to Aggie the Agreer # 3 and #4:  Aggie the Agreer #3 is the sociopathic type who has warmth like Aggie #1, but it’s totally phony.  She is warm and only agreeing with you to charm you, disarm you, divert you, get you on her side, get you out of her office, set you up, drive you crazy, and/or destroy you.  Aggie # 3 can be an expert actor in her Oscar performances as she feigns sympathy, empathy, compassion, and gets you to believe she is sincere and that she truly cares.  She does not!  She’s usually a psychopath!

Aggie the Agreer #4 is the sociopathic type like Aggie # 3, and she also has no warmth and a voice like a computer chip, similar to Aggie the Agreer #2.   Aggie #4 is probably hoping that her dull and uncaring tone will give you the message to get out of her office.  She will agree with you, but she will only set you up, drive you crazy, and/or destroy you.  Aggie # 4 is far from an expert actor because she has no emotions.  She may think her stilted, canned words and flat affect convey sympathy, empathy, compassion, but they do not.  She’s usually a psychopath, too, only not the charming, affable kind – just the cold-blooded, plotting kind.

In reality, Aggie #3 and Aggie #4 both operate on their own agenda and they have no genuine concern about you or anyone else.   Aggie #3 and Aggie #4 are usually ruthless, ladder climbing psychopaths, who have no guilt, no conscience, and no remorse.  Both of them are very devious, deceptive, and Machiavellian.  Be very careful of them because they can be lethal, untrustworthy, and dangerous. These types of Aggies usually are very premeditated, calculating types and are capable of great harm, malfeasance, and even murder.  See my previous columns on the Smiling Cobra in my book, Surviving the Toxic Workplace.

EXPLANATION

The psychological and childhood origins that cause a person to become any of the four types of Aggie the Agreer can be complex and varied.

One scenario is that they may have had a domineering, angry, yelling parent. Perhaps they had a mentally and/or physically abusive father and/or mother who scared them witless. Aggie learned to never disagree, express an opinion, or stand up for herself.  When she was a child or teen, she probably scuttled away silently, while giving lip service, just to shut her parents up and escape from their wrath.

Underneath, Aggie #1 and even Aggie #2 are probably terrified of any confrontation and they agree out of sheer survival, because to disagree means emotional annihilation.  Aggie’s survival means to be compliant.  Aggie # 1 may genuinely want to help and change the situation, but she is paralyzed out of a myriad of fears.

Another psychological scenario for the root of Aggie’s inaction is that one or both of her parents may also have been shy, spineless, and frightened, and terrorized by others, so it could be a faulty role model, a repeating family pattern, and how she learned to survive. Terrified of making a mistake, she is frozen, fearing loss of her job, a demotion, a transfer, and/or being shunned, ostracized, and/or criticized.

Aggie # 3 and Aggie 4 may have had similar parents to Aggie #1 and #2. They may also have had parents who were duplicitous, sneaky, and deceptive. When they were growing up, they probably watched one or both of their parents charm and/or manipulate other people artfully to get their way and/or to destroy their enemies.  This can be the case with children of politicians, attorneys, CEOs, and others in positions of power.  These types of parents usually did not instill ethics, morals, or solid values in their child(ren) because they probably did not have any themselves.

Aggie #3 learned how effective that style was to handle anything she didn’t like or that got in her way. Usually at first, Aggie #3 can be very diplomatic, tactful, and is similar to the Smiling Cobra described in my book, Surviving the Toxic Workplace (McGraw Hill). Aggie #3 can be charming, exude warmth and empathy – which is all a bogus act to con you – and then she does exactly what she wants.   “Con artist” doesn’t mean “convict” like I thought when I was young.  “Con” stands  for a “confidence man” (or woman),  who gains your confidence so you believe them and are easily manipulated.

Aggie #4 can be the computer chip version of Aggie # 3, who still does exactly the same nefarious deeds, only without the phony warmth. No matter which way Aggie chooses to operate, it’s a losing game for you and others.  Her cold-bloodedness is chilling and, at times, you may feel that sense of fear go up and down your spine when you are around her.  Run, do not walk, to your nearest exit.  And if you have to stay, make sure your attorney is with you.

SOLUTION

First, put EVERYTHING IN WRITING. You must create a paper trail when dealing with any of the four types of Aggie the Agreer, as you need to do with basically EVERYONE you come into contact with in the business, and even the personal world, to avoid misunderstanding, law suits, and wasting time, money and energy.  Clear, frequent, and honest communication is crucial to productive, lucrative, successful companies and human relationships. More about creating a paper trail later and keep this in mind while you continue reading.

As I mentioned in my book, Surviving the Toxic Workplace (McGraw Hill), “calling a process shot” on all four types of Aggie the Agreers is one of the best ways to deal with her.  You need to decide what way(s) of handling Aggie the Agreer is best and most effective for you.

By definition, a process shot is describing HOW and additionally WHY someone is doing something.  You describe their “process” – their method, style, hidden agendas, rationale, and how they come across to you.  This is similar to putting a pin in a balloon. They are “busted” – called out, identified, pinpointed (excuse the pun) as to their sneaky motivation and style for getting what they want.  You’ve identified their evil side, and they won’t like it one bit because they honestly think they can get away with it and that you’re too stupid or naïve to notice or pick it up intuitively.  Use your Emotional Intelligence (a great book and great title, by the way by Daniel Goleman), and call a process shot – tell the Aggies of the world that you are hip to their tricks and they can’t con you.  Then they may develop some respect for you. Or they may go after you even more vociferously. Right before your eyes, they can turn into the bullies that they really are underneath.  More follows.

Each type of the Aggies have several defense mechanisms when that happens: they can deny, minimize, refute, charm you over again, sweet talk you, and try to convince you to doubt your own intuition and gut reaction. They can stonewall you, walk away, order you to leave their office, get angry, yell, scream, intimidate, bully you, threaten you, pressure you to quit, fire you, drive you crazy, and do whatever it takes to win and get rid of you.  They are usually ruthless in their attempts to cover up and/or win.

Your style with each of them has to be a bit different, tailored to the different types:

With Aggie the Agreer #1, you could call a process shot and say something like this:  “Aggie, I notice that every time I come in with a complaint, you initially are very empathetic, compassionate, and you seem to know exactly what I’m feeling. You agree with me, my perceptions, and you lead me to believe you will fix the problem. So I walk out of your office thinking that you will remedy the negative situation immediately. And yet days, weeks and months go by, and you take no action to correct the situation I need assistance with. So you do nothing.  What I need is for you to stand up and correct what is a dangerous situation.  I’d rather not have to contact _______, (fill in the blank with one or more selections)  your boss/your boss’s boss/the union/the district manager, OSHA, EEOC, or my attorney to get this remedied. Please tell me what you are going to do and when or you’ll leave me no other choice but to take action by going over your head, taking legal action or even contacting the media.”   You can stop there if you like.

If you’d like to continue, adding the WHY to this conversation and why she’s avoiding taking action, would probably sound like this: “Perhaps, Aggie, you’re afraid to take a stand and make a decision because you’re protecting your job, salary, promotion, raise, reputation, or whatever.  Your lack of action is putting _______, (fill in the blank with one or more selections) me/other employees/the company/your own job at risk and you could be setting the company up for a law suit if this situation isn’t remedied immediately.”

With Aggie the Agreer #3 and #4, you can initially use a more low key approach with calling a process shot: “Aggie, I notice that every time I come to you with a complaint and/or to report a dangerous working condition, you initially agree with me, and you give me the impression that you are going to remedy the situation, yet you either do nothing or you do exactly the opposite of what I asked you to do or some variation on that theme. Why is that?”

Let her answer the question. You’ll usually get the run around, her well oiled excuse machine, or even a complete stonewall.  You may want to have your first meeting with your attorney present.

You can go to a more direct approach, but you must be prepared to lose your job!  I recommend having an attorney in the room if you start out with this next approach. You could say something like this, calling a process shot:  “Aggie, I notice that every time I come to you with a complaint and/or to report a dangerous working condition, you initially agree with me and you give the impression that you are going to remedy the situation, yet you either do nothing or you do exactly the opposite of what I asked you to do, or some variation on that theme.  I find that to be manipulative, deceptive, and I feel betrayed by your double dealings. I realize that you have absolutely no intention at all to do anything about it. You are also jeopardizing the company and I find that to be dangerous.”

Aggie the Agreer #3 and #4 are usually so psychopathic that they may have their tentacles into everything and everyone: they sometimes have, use and/or threaten to use blackmail material on others; they lie, cover her tracks, and/or have her next promotion or career move lined up.

You can go to Aggie’s boss/Aggie’s boss’s boss/the union/HR/OSHA/EEOC/the district manager and/or any other higher authority to get their attention and have the situation resolved. Usually HR is the tool of the company or corporation so they may not be very helpful, although there are exceptions and there are some very responsive HR departments.

Using the media is another option. If Aggie won’t take action on issues like racial, religious, gender, and/or sexual discrimination or sexual harassment, then you must expose and publicize negative and unfair situations that you experience by reporting it to OSHA, EEOC, the union, as well using as the media. If it is a dangerous situation, like faulty plumbing, electricity, building code violations, poisonous gases, etc., contact the police, County and State building inspectors and OSHA, and other government agencies, as well as the media.

Contacting an attorney and having them send a letter of demand to correct the situation usually gets a company and HR’s attention.  They do not want a law suit or negative publicity and are more apt to settle out of court.

As I mentioned previously in this column – Whether you are dealing with Aggie #1 , #2, #3, or #4,  ALWAYS create a paper trail by sending letters and emails; have witnesses who will send supporting letters and/or who will go with to you to HR to make reports and complaints; you and your witnesses should always send certified, return receipt letters so you know they received them and/or deliver it to the boss, HR, boss’s boss, etc. with a witness, or have them served by a process server if and when you take it to court; call an attorney with experience in business and employment law and have them write letters to the company – make sure they are certified, return receipt letters so you know Aggie and the company received them.

Remember – according to attorneys, you can use voice mail messages from Aggie and/or other witnesses, employees, the company, etc., as admissible evidence in a court case. So save ALL your voice mail messages on a separate tape that you keep in your safety deposit box.  Make copies and play them for your attorney, making sure they have a copy for the law case, one for the judge, the jury, and the opposing attorney.

Be prepared to be fired or, if you decide to stay, you’ll probably be given a very difficult time by any of the Aggies and/or higher ups in the company who probably hope you quit. They would most likely prefer not to fire you because then that makes the company responsible to paying you unemployment, which they will initially contest and fight. They also do not want you to file a law suit. You may want to have another job lined up just in case or plan to start your own business by yourself with backers and/or with friends.

Going over Aggie’s head to her boss or to her boss’s boss can be effective if you have the courage.  Perhaps the bosses do not know what she is doing.  They may even fire Aggie!  However, they may fire you. Just remember, companies circle the wagons against dissidents, whistle blowers, and truth tellers who expose the lies, deception, and corruption.  All the employees usually “have drunk the Kool-Aid,” and they can act like brainwashed cult victims, spouting “the party line” like pre-programmed robots.

As management theory states, the personality, ethics (or lack of them) and values of the founders and/or people at the top trickle down to the mail clerks and the crew on the loading dock. If the people at the top are ruthless, unethical, greedy, slick, phony, cruel, backstabbing psychopaths, then that will influence and permeate the entire company.  If the people at the top are ethical, kind, fair, have high expectations for performance, provide excellent service and products, and treat their employees with respect and dignity, then the entire company will reflect that as well.

As the expression goes, “Each person only cares about the rice in their bowl.”  Every employee usually has a rent or mortgage payment, car and car insurance payments, some have kids in college, and their list of bills and expenses goes on. Most people will not stick their neck out for you or anyone else.  Get copies of your proof lined up when you make your complaint, with or without your attorney – preferably with your attorney present.  And keep the originals in a safety deposit box at your bank and/or your safe at home.

Once I wrote a letter of support for a colleague once when they had a very reasonable demand for fairness from the company which acted egregiously.  My colleague was shocked, surprised, and grateful that I would be brave enough to stand up to the company, write a letter, and agree to be a witness against the company if it came to a trial.  My response was, “I have to sleep at night and I have to look at myself in the mirror, and what was done to you was unfair. I’ll do whatever it takes to support you in rectifying it.”  And yes, I was jeopardizing my own future at the company.  But a principle is a principle.  My colleague eventually was proven in the right against the company after a long, drawn out process.  As Janis Joplin once said, “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.

I hope this column helps you in dealing with all types of Aggie the Agreer!

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—Linnda Durré, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, business consultant, corporate trainer, international speaker, and magazine, newspaper, and Internet columnist. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies giving speeches, seminars, trainings, and workshops. She hosted and co-produced two live call-in advice radio shows and two live call-in TV advice shows, including “Ask The Family Therapist” on America’s Health Network (AHN), 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 (McGraw Hill 2010). The book’s website is: www.survivingthetoxicworkplace.com Dr. Durre’ has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Daytime, Good Morning America, Canada AM, and The O’Reilly Factor (twice), and on the national and/or local news on ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, Fox and CW, as well as by Forbes, WSJ, Inc. Magazine, Investor’s Business Daily, Business Week, Job Week, Career Builder, Law Office Administrator, Entrepreneur Magazine, as well as newspapers including Orlando Business Journal, Sydney (Australia) Herald, Pasadena Star News, LA Times, New Jersey Star Ledger, Argus Leader, and many more. She has written for Forbes, AOL, Yahoo, CareerBuilder, Monster, A&U Magazine, Management Issues, Orlando Business Journal, and American Cities Business Journals. For more information about her consulting and speaking, contact her at Linnda.Durre@gmail.com.

Coping with a Toxic Boss – “AGGIE THE AGREER”
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