Taming beastly bosses


Hiding behind your boss's lion's roar might be a timid kitten. Coax out your boss's softer side.

Let's be honest: It's rare to find an employee who hasn't indulged in a good old gripe fest with co-workers. There's something comforting in knowing that the boss's incessant tardiness or horrible attitude is bothering other people, too. But these complaint sessions don't really solve anything. That's especially true if you're a team member with a boss who roars like a lion, steamrolls like an elephant, or slithers like a snake. Rather than bemoaning your bad-boss fate, try to ditch the idea that your boss is beastly. Begin taming your opinion by thinking about what might be causing your boss's not-so-great behavior.

Consider the source

Odds are, you share boss-related annoyances with other team members—even those who work at practices of different shapes and sizes (see "10 Common Bad Boss Behaviors"). While this may sound surprising, it's not when you consider the legitimate reasons behind most veterinary practice owners' actions. Their bad behavior is usually because they're:

  • Managers by default. "Most veterinarians are bosses because they have the letters after their name and own the practice," says Dr. Craig Woloshyn, owner of Sun Dog Veterinary Consulting in Custer, S.D. "Nowhere in their schooling or work experience, if they have any, have they been prepared for supervising employees, stimulating them, enriching their workplace, helping them apply their skills to make the practice thrive, or forming a team out of disparate personalities. Simply, they never learned how to be a boss, and now they are one."

  • Pummeled by details. Managers often deal with every aspect of the practice, from medical care to team communication. So when they don't focus on what you might wish they did, it's probably because they're handling something else, says Pam Weakley, Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and practice manager at Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic in Battle Creek, Mich. "It might be that they're worried about a patient in the ICU or an extra-large electric bill," she says.

And don't forget that for every time you take a problem to your boss, there's a different team member highlighting yet another issue. "Sometimes veterinarians are thinking about all the things on their plate at once and trying to please everyone," Weakley says. "And they're still handling all the medical cases, too."

  • Ruined by misunderstanding. Your idea of inappropriate behavior might not be the same as your manager's—or even your fellow team members' for that matter. So what looks like a problem to you, might seem perfectly normal to your boss, says Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a partner at VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. "In these cases, it's all about perception," she says.

Adopt a different view

As with most things, perception has a lot to do with how you react to your boss's behavior—and perception is a potent remedy. With a little bit of insight, some of your complaints could be erased.

A couple notes about great managers

"I once worked with a clinic where the boss would yell, and the team members would yell back," Grosdidier says. "It was very upsetting to some new employees. But it turned out that after so many years of dogs barking and machines whirring, the doctor was hearing impaired. He had to talk loud, and everyone just got comfortable with that. Some of the team members got small earplugs to dim the noise a few decibels."

So when you're feeling cranky about your boss, stop and think about what might be going on with her. Then try to put yourself in her position, Weakley says. "If you've never owned your own business, it's hard to know what it takes to keep a business not only open, but profitable," she says.

Seeing your boss in a different light may be the solution you need, Grosdidier says. "Bosses' actions aren't about you," she says, "they're about them. You aren't going to change the fact that your boss comes in late, so try to let that go." You might be surprised how much better you feel when you just allow some behaviors to slide off your back.

Stepping up and speaking out

What happens if you've tried to view things from your boss's perspective and let go of your snarky feelings, but you still don't think the behavior is acceptable? It might be time to log a complaint.

Grosdidier says that poor conduct, especially from a manager, can be so destructive that it creates a practice-wide whirlpool. "Team members usually become irritable when the partners are fighting or the doctors are asking them to do things they feel uncomfortable with," she says. "In these circumstances, you must determine your individual comfort with the situation that's at hand. If you're being asked to lie to people and you know you can't, you must talk to your boss."

Think carefully about how—and when—it's best to approach your boss about the problem. "Vomit all your thoughts onto a piece of paper, and look for common threads," Grosdidier says. This will help you clearly outline the issues that really matter. Then you must do three things.

1. Make the level of importance clear. Be up-front with your boss. Say something like, "This conversation is very important to me. I love what I do here and I love what we do for pets, but this is bothering me."

2. Use the word I. Frame the issue around yourself instead of around your boss by saying, "I feel this way," or "When this happens, I feel like this," Grosdidier says. For instance, rather than saying, "When you talk loudly, we can't work," try making this statement: "I feel like team members get flustered when people talk loudly, and our work suffers." This helps keep the manager from feeling accused and will hopefully prevent a defensive response.

3. Contain the situation. Boil the problem down to a manageable size by providing your boss with a clear idea of how you'd like it resolved. You could say, "I would feel better if I was not included in these conversations in the future," or "I don't want to be put in situations where I have to lie to people."

After a talk like this, there are two potential outcomes: Things get better, or they don't. If you end up in the camp of team members whose situations don't improve, Dr. Woloshyn says it's probably time to look for a new practice (see "Signs It's Time to Cut and Run" at right). "If your practice is a place where you don't want to come in the door in the morning and the boss won't address issues, that's reason enough to head on down the road," he says.

Most likely, your result will be more positive. Grosdidier says a tough conversation with the boss might just be what he or she needs to get back on track. "We get in an everyday rut," she says, "and sometimes we don't realize how far off the path we are until someone pulls us back on and tells us the direction we need to go."

Case in point: Grosdidier once worked with a team member who was struggling because her boss couldn't seem to do anything in a timely manner. "The team member finally broke down and said to her boss, 'I don't know who you are anymore, and we've worked together for 20 years.' In this situation, the owner was suffering from depression and needed medication," Grosdidier says. "The push by the team member was what the doctor needed. It was the wake-up call that turned everything around." Your circumstances might not be this extreme, but still, a serious, thoughtful conversation will likely improve the situation between you and your boss.

Beastly bosses can make for a wild time at work. But their behavior might not be nearly as fierce as it seems if you can just look past the claws and fangs. With a change in perspective or a well-planned conversation, you may be the "boss whisperer" who transforms this (seemingly) savage creature into a docile manager. And that will create an environment that's better for all involved.

Katherine Bontrager is a freelance writer living in Leawood, Kan.

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