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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer Bad Cop

We all have a good cop and bad cop in us. Learn to deal with the bad cop so it doesn’t ruin your working relationships.

By  Julia Kramer

You are extremely responsible and highly productive. You have lofty personal standards and never shy away from a challenge or new opportunity. You are a bit of a perfectionist, are always accountable for your own actions and don’t make excuses. You are confident and sure-handed when making decisions. You are likable, personable and fun. Colleagues describe you as intelligent, visionary, driven, successful and inspiring. They count on you to get the job done right and get it done on time, every time. All great stuff.

The other side of the coin (and there’s always another side) is not as pretty a picture. Given the right circumstances or enough stress, you also can be controlling, forcefully imposing your opinions on others. You may shun collaborative input, preferring to go it alone. You hold onto plum tasks, choose not to delegate, and keep information close to the vest. You can be condescending, egocentric and overly critical of others. You may inspire fear and hinder productivity and creativity. All to be expected.

Yes, expected, because every human being has a flipside. We can at once have both amazingly positive and seriously negative traits (although, thankfully, few have all of the traits described in the previous paragraph). Most of us learn to manage and/or suppress our more negative characteristics so that our positive side can be recognized and rewarded. But we also know that no one can wear the white hat all of the time—most of us have at one time or another reverted to our basic “bad cop” tendencies.

So what do we do when our own, or our manager’s, coin lands on the unpleasant side? Hoping that this won’t ever happen all but guarantees future disillusionment and disappointment in yourself or others. Instead, accept the dichotomy and develop coping strategies to turn yourself around and/or help you cope with others’ temporary personality glitches. Some suggestions follow.

Anticipate the inevitable. Knowing that everyone snaps once in awhile allows us to anticipate, and therefore not be blindsided by, a negative reaction. If, for example, I know that my manager has been under a lot of personal stress, has been dealing with a difficult employee situation and has missed a deadline and gotten nailed for it, I should be able to anticipate a less than positive response when I ask to be included on the new project team. Similarly, if I’m at my wits’ end and mad at the world, I need to recognize my state of mind and understand that today might not be the day to schedule a one-on-one with an underperforming employee—even if telling someone off sure would feel good.

Formulate a strategy. Sometimes your strategy may be to put off what you’d planned on doing for a more opportune time. If you can’t delay the situation, take a minute and plan how best to approach and communicate to your manager. If you have a good relationship, you might say, “You seem to have a lot on your plate and I wish I didn’t need to bring this to you today, but if I wait, the situation will get worse,” to give yourself an opening. If it’s you who’s flipped out, try a little self-therapy and intellectualize the situation. Say to yourself: “Self, you are not in a good mood, but you need to delegate this task to Denise and she needs some of your time to learn how to do it.” Then simply decide not to take it out on Denise and don’t. Use your controlling tendencies for good instead of evil and control your own emotions.

Follow up with communication. If you are the offender, then follow up with an explanation and an apology. If you were the one caught in the line of fire, you should still follow up. Pick your time carefully (some distance is usually a good idea) and approach your manager. Say, in a very respectful and concerned tone of voice, that her (pick one) excluding you from an opportunity, anger, dismissal, condescension or lack of collaboration was confusing to you because typically she has been (pick one) inclusive, patient, accessible, supportive and open to your ideas. Let her know that you are not (pick one) angry, traumatized, scared or resentful, just confused, and that you want to (pick one) understand, take some things off of her plate or learn how to handle the situation in the future.

Learn from experience. Every time you or someone you work with displays a negative flipside, take note. Identify what triggered the behavior, determine if there is a consistent pattern, make an effort to avoid the hot buttons, and find an effective strategy to move forward. If you can’t do this yourself, find someone who’s already learned how to manage the situation, go to HR, or seek out a mentor for some sound advice. No matter how you learn, you must learn. Continuing to be vulnerable to a bad toss of the coin is a no-win situation for everyone concerned.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.

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Got a human resources problem you can?t resolve? Ask our HR guru Julia Kramer, SPHR, how to handle those sticky personnel issues everyone wants to avoid.