A reader writes:
I work for a small nonprofit membership organization and am supervised directly by the executive director. The ED meets with funders to advocate for our members, builds partnerships with other organizations to provide services to our clients, and is generally the “face” of the organization.
The problem is, he’s kind of a jerk. He constantly interrupts and talks over people, over explains simple points like one would to a toddler, points his finger in people’s faces when speaking to them, and is very dismissive of anyone who has ideas that are not his own. (He recently told someone during a meeting, “This is why you’re wrong” and listed all the reasons why a pretty good idea wouldn’t work.) I’ve been in many meetings with him where I’ve seen people completely shut off after listening to him for about two minutes. He’s worse with women, especially young women. While we haven’t lost out on any opportunities (that I know of) because of his demeanor, I have had people approach me privately and comment on his abrasive personality. More than a few people have bypassed him and come to me to set up programs and suggest new initiatives because they don’t want to deal with him.
I have pretty thick skin, so I have no problem pushing back when he starts lecturing me about how much I don’t know, or telling him “I am not finished speaking” when he tries to interrupt me. I know not everyone is comfortable doing so. How can I talk to him about the way he speaks to others? Is it even possible to address without looking like I’m overstepping? As I mentioned, he’s the face of our organization and I hate to think that our funders, clients, and partners think we’re all a bunch of jerks.
You can’t fix this.
I’ve worked with this guy and I’ve been you, letter-writer, and all the energy that you will put into trying to explain to him how to treat people decently — into trying to explain how to talk to other humans, and not to treat young women worse than other people, and not to be an asshole — all that energy will be wasted.
He might — might — make small modifications around the edges. It’s almost worse if he does that, because that will give you just enough hope that he can change that you’ll continue to try to change him more.
But he won’t change in substantive ways. This is who he is. He’s an asshole who diminishes people.
If you want to have one conversation with him — and only one — about what you’re seeing and the problems it’s causing, go for it. There is a very small chance that it will be a wake-up call for him. If it is, great! He can pursue coaching or therapy or behavioral changes on his own. If he wants your advice about what to change, he can come and ask you for it. But if that one conversation doesn’t change much, then hear the message that’s sending you, and don’t spend more of your energy trying to fix him. At that point, you’ll have shown him the problems, and he’ll have shown you he doesn’t care.
If you want to work there anyway, knowing that this is who he is and he won’t change, that’s 100% your prerogative. Some people are fine with this type of personality and can work around it pretty well without being terribly affected by it. If you can and you want to, feel free!
But all that energy you’ll put into trying to be a buffer between him and others (that’s what’s happening when people come to you instead of him), and into protecting other people from his behavior — if it works, that will just keep them in a bad situation longer, when what they really should be doing is getting out. Don’t try to make this more palatable for other people; support them in pushing back or leaving.
can I fix how my boss treats people? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.