My mentor hands me a complex file, barks a few instructions and then disappears for weeks so I can’t get the information I need to do my job. How do I persuade her to give me a hand once in a while?
— Hopeless Holly
HH: Your mentor might be awful, but the ability to get along with awful people is critical to your career success. And since you cannot change her personality, you need to focus on her behaviour.
Human beings are complex, but our behaviour is fairly predictable, particularly in a results-driven workplace. My former boss, in fact, often acted a lot like your mentor.
One day he came to my office emphatic that I get the requisite notifications filed with the Canada Revenue Agency for a financing transaction, lest the client suffer penalties. He promised to send me the final legal agreements for the filings ASAP. He never did. I emailed, I called, I visited his office, all to no avail. I felt like a stalker and he treated me like one. It was days before the filing deadline and I knew who would be blamed if it was missed. Suddenly, I had an epiphany: it’s not that this man wanted to destroy me. He knew I needed the agreements. It’s just that my little problem was not on his radar. So I asked myself: where else can I obtain these documents?
The agreements were sitting somewhere in my boss’s office. I flirted briefly with the idea of a break-in after hours, but thought better of it. Instead, I called the client’s corporate attorney. It was embarrassing, but it was the only way. The attorney sarcastically told me they had already filed the notifications at the client’s request. When my boss finally came by to “catch up” on the file, I mentioned that the attorney had already taken care of the filings. The man did not bat an eyelash. He thanked me for confirming this with the attorney and handed me a new file, oblivious to the fact that his peon had come so close to the edge of the precipice.
Knowing a person’s working style empowers you to respond constructively to habits and behaviours that differ from your own. In my case, expressing frustration would likely have alienated my boss or caused him to lose confidence in my ability to “take care of the details.” Taking a resourceful, non-confrontational approach is one strategy for dealing with someone who is often unresponsive and insensitive. My boss gained confidence in my ability to take ownership of the file and I stopped bugging him. It may strike you as an odd and unfair way to do business. I agree. But as Clint Eastwood eloquently expressed before blowing away Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, fair “ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”
Who’s your boss?
Tony Danza had no trouble cleaning the house of his bombshell blonde boss, Angela, because he knew how to bring out the uptight control freak’s sensitive side. Here’s how you can win your boss over, no matter what her behaviour.
The chronic whiner
She needs you to feel her pain. Acknowledge her suffering by expressing your desire to help.
The neurotic stress ball
Don’t get sucked into his chaos. Talk about solutions and results. He likes people who take initiative.
The control freak
Show deference but be confident. Tell her how smart she is. Give her the credit for the good work you do; it will pay off later.
The small talker
Listen, smile, nod and laugh on cue. It’s time well spent to build the relationship.
Avoid at all costs. If there’s nowhere to run, pretend she is a toddler — ignore the behaviour and focus on the needs.
The unreadable guy in a suit
He is either in excruciating pain or attempting to smile at you. Forget chit-chat. He wants to hear about his deals.
The slave driver
Display a fierce work ethic but establish boundaries firmly and early in the relationship.
The incompetent delegator
Become a sycophantic friend or else you’ll end up a scapegoat.
The really senior partner in the corner office
He thinks you’re his secretary or his grand- child. Open the door for him and answer “yes” to any question he asks. He will probably have forgotten by the following day.
Illustration by Bob Hambly
Sandra Rosier is a former Supreme Court of Canada clerk who has worked at large firms in Toronto and Boston. Having come to her senses, Sandra currently practices tax law at a smallish Toronto firm. Her etiquette column for lawyers appears every other Monday at lawandstyle.ca. Got a question for Sandra? Email us.