A reader asks:
I work on a team of four -- our manager and the three producers. Our manager is not very experienced with managing, and we tend to pick up a lot of the slack for clarifying directives, managing vendors, setting plans, etc. Personality-wise, our manager is typically very playful and her goal is for us to all be friends. However, every now and then, she'll flex her authority in a very authoritative fashion, as if to say, "Look. This is not up to discussion. It's the way it is." It's not the words, but the tone of voice, the anger, and power that she flexes in the moment.
Today in a meeting, she asked how necessary a particular vendor was because she was wanting to cut the resourcing. We let her know how vital their work was and started brainstorming how to cut costs. She fumed and went off on us about how "THIS IS THE WAY IT WILL BE" and stormed out. We were completely befuddled and confused about what happened. I felt extremely disrespected and protective of my two team members, who are younger and less experienced. I don't believe in taking verbal abuse from anyone, especially when unwarranted.
How can I nip this in the bud with my manager without coming across as threatening or overstepping my role? Also, if I do address it, how do I ensure I do not place myself in a place where she might hold it against me?
Ah yes, the manager who wants to be friends -- until she doesn't and flips out in an over-display of authority, instead of just calibrating things correctly from the beginning. It's likely that she's not sure what normal, calm authority looks like or how to exercise it, which is why she's cycling back and forth between two bad extremes.
Usually people who act the way your manager is acting are incredibly insecure about their own authority. She doesn't know how to use it normally (and at some level, she realizes that about herself), and so instead she overcompensates, beating you over the head with it when she doesn't need to.
Your best bet is to talk with her about what happened, calmly and rationally. This will signal that her blow-up isn't a reasonable way to operate, but rather was something that took people aback, and thus is now A Thing That Must Be Discussed. And if you do it right, it can also shore up her ability to use authority correctly, by highlighting for her that you're perfectly happy to do things the way she wants and that she doesn't need to freak out on you to make that happen.
I'd use this an opener: "What happened yesterday? I was surprised by your reaction and wondered where we went wrong, so that we can avoid it in the future."
Be ready to say things like:
* "I got the sense that you felt like we were ignoring what you wanted us to do. But we weren't. If you'd told us that we needed to find a way to make things work without the vendor, that would have been fine. It seemed like you were frustrated that we didn't realize that that's what you were saying, but we just needed it clarified."
* "This sort of thing is your call. We'll go along with whatever you decide, but I'm hoping we can communicate about these things without being yelled at. If you have concerns about how the team is working, we should of course address it, but yesterday felt like we were being berated, and I'd like to figure out how we can avoid that in the future."
* "Is there a different way we can handle this sort of thing in the future?"
You want your tone to convey, "Look, you call the shots. But we got yelled at and that's not OK, so how can we keep that from happening in the future?"
Your tone should be calm and concerned, not flustered or angry. You want to model how competent professionals talk, and you don't want to reinforce the idea that wild displays of emotion are appropriate.
Ideally, this conversation will help her realize that what she's doing isn't working and that people aren't OK with it -- or at least start the process of that happening. Of course, if she's a truly horrid manager, it's possible she'll dig in her heels and you'll be the target because you pushed back. But that's a fairly rare response to a reasonable discussion like this.
That said, keep in mind that you're dealing with classic new manager issues here. Those don't usually go away overnight, and you're unfortunately her training ground, which is rarely fun.
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