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Article updated: 9/30/2012 7:06 AM

Work advice: how middle managers can handle bosses who terrorize

Being a buffer between management and line workers can be stressful for the middleman or -woman, and enabling a truly abusive boss is not the goal. But one rational manager who makes good employees feel valued and respected can inspire them to stick around and try to meet even a perfectionist boss’ high standards.

Being a buffer between management and line workers can be stressful for the middleman or -woman, and enabling a truly abusive boss is not the goal. But one rational manager who makes good employees feel valued and respected can inspire them to stick around and try to meet even a perfectionist boss' high standards.

 

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By Karla L. Miller

Editor's note: Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Last week, she explained how employees can deal with bullying bosses. This week, she'll look at how middle managers can handle bosses who terrorize their line workers.

Q: The situation: A small business with a supervisor, a second-in-command and several employees. The supervisor believes the way to correct an error made by an employee is to yell at him or her. The second-in-command does not agree and would like to promote a more professional atmosphere, but what can he or she do? (This is going on in the kitchens of too many restaurants, I'm afraid. There are egos involved.)

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A: Aren't there always.

Some bosses are genuine perfectionists, as intolerant of their own mistakes as those of their employees. Others just enjoy watching underlings tremble before their righteous wrath. Depending on what type of top toque rules this kitchen, the sous-chef -- I assume that's you -- needs to be either a strainer filtering out the bad stuff, or an oven mitt protecting the hired hands from getting burned. (I hope you work in a literal restaurant, because I'm milking this metaphor dry.)

In either case, the best approach is to promote an environment in which mistakes are calmly identified and acknowledged, then remedied and not repeated.

Strainer method: Might the supervisor entrust training and discipline to you? If so, it will be your responsibility to make sure the employees are performing up to the boss' standards, and to be straightforward with them when they aren't. Allow for honest errors, but explain that there are consequences for carelessness or sloppiness.

Oven mitt method: If the boss insists on micromanaging and "correcting" the staff himself, you may be able to mitigate the damage with a spoonful of honey. If an employee seems shaken after being dressed down, take him or her aside for a private, "Hey, you OK?" If the worker genuinely screwed up, make sure he or she understands the error and how to avoid it in the future. If the boss overreacted to a minor infraction, reassure the employee that it wasn't personal -- but without undermining your boss.

You can also promote professionalism and camaraderie by setting an example. Address workers' mistakes patiently, and serve up praise when it's warranted. If you goof and the boss turns up the heat on you, apologize, correct the error and move on.

Granted, being a buffer between management and line workers can be stressful for the middleman or -woman, and enabling a truly abusive boss is not the goal. But one rational manager who makes good employees feel valued and respected can inspire them to stick around and try to meet even a perfectionist boss' high standards.

• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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