Money & Careers

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: Counsel for a “Terrorizing” Boss Who Needs to Recoup

Dr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week she counsels a manager who has antagonized her staff and doesn’t know how to correct “my behaviors.”



First she spends long hours at night reviewing the work of her staff. Then she points out their deficiencies—badly.

Dear Dr. Ford:

I am a manager of 10 people in the court system. I find them to be lazy and, often, dishonest. I can never trust them to do the work that each of them must do so that important tasks that require group effort are finished both accurately and on time.

I spend hours late at night reviewing their work. Then, the next day, I have to contact the people whom these employees should have contacted to find out whether the employees had actually followed through. About 75 percent of the time, the work was not done.  

I am exhausted, and don’t know what to do. My boss called me in last week to tell me that I had created an environment of terror and distrust. He said that if I could not work with my subordinates, if I could not motivate them to do their work correctly and on time, then it was my fault as a leader and a manager. When I tried to explain that I stayed late every night in order to review their work and often found it to be deficient, he said that I should have reported this before. I did not hire any of these people, and they know that I have no real control over their future at work.

I really need this job, but I don’t know if I will be able to keep it after this unexpected and negative review. Obviously I have some behaviors that I need to change or I am going to lose my job. My boss did not offer any workplace support, nor did he make any suggestions. Are there some behaviors that I can correct even if I do lose this job so I will be able to work more effectively as a leader in the next job? I have my master’s in business administration, and am otherwise a normal 45-year-old woman.



Dr. Ford Responds: 

Dear Deann:

Yours is a tough, but not uncommon, problem. According to Forbes magazine, only 29 percent of employees are “fully engaged”  in their work. Fortunately for you, the No. 1 factor influencing an employee’s level of engagement is his relationship with his immediate supervisor. That means that it is within your power to improve things at your job, even though you yourself are not getting any positive support or guidance from your own supervisor.

Unfortunately, though, you have to overcome the precedents that you have set up to this point with the staff. You have mistakenly given them the impression that you are there to micromanage, cover for, and police them. In order to turn things around you will have to get to the root of what is keeping these people from performing better. Instead of “lazy,” think of them as “disengaged” and try to improve things from that point of view.

Your most important tool is communication. Have open, transparent conversations with your staff, listening and genuinely trying to see from their point of view what obstacles they are facing and what might help them do better. If at all possible, incorporate any suggestions they give. Find a way to keep communication open so that your employees can let you know early in the process when they are behind, without fear of retaliation. Nipping something in the bud, and helping the employee get back on track, is much easier than cleaning up a mess later or having to do their work for them, as you have been doing. Also, creating a situation in which you can offer encouragement to reach a goal rather than criticism for a goal not met is at least twice as valuable.

Secondly, you say that your office works in such a way that a group effort is needed to meet your goals. Let your employees see and understand the ways in which each person’s work affects the others’.  People have been shown to be much more responsible when they are made to understand the impact their actions have on others. Have staff meetings in which they are made to feel accountable to one another, rather than to you. To facilitate group cohesion and support, find ways to encourage interaction, including if possible, staff parties, retreats, or other ways to promote bonding and foster a sense of interdependence. Be sure to include yourself in these events. The more you get to know your employees, the more you will be able to understand their needs and communicate to them that you care about their career paths.

Another tool is to create incentives. Though salary boosts may be beyond your control, praise, either direct or in the form of performance reviews, is not. Be sure to support any small progress towards improvement. Praise alone has been shown to be a remarkably powerful motivator (and failing to notice when someone is doing well or better is very negative indeed). Spend part of each day reviewing what may have gone right and make sure it gets noticed. By the same token, small incentives that may seem “juvenile,” such as contests, games, or even stars, have been shown to be effective. Working in the court system must be grim, and any way that you can brighten the atmosphere would be appreciated.

Finally, try to “lighten the load” in some small ways that will be appreciated. Even though these employees are underperforming, every one of them probably sees himself or herself as overburdened in some way. Find ways that you can give them a break whenever you can think of one—even if it’s a very small one like an extra hour at lunch once a month. They will try harder if they think someone cares about their lives outside of work as well as in the office.

If these things sound like time-wasters that are likely to put your office even further behind the 8-ball, you’re wrong. If you approach your staff with the attitude not that they are deficient in some way, but that their working conditions need to be improved so that they can work more effectively, you, and they, will be rewarded for it. Perhaps your boss will follow your example and become a more effective manager herself one day.

Image by Kheel Center, Cornell University via Flickr

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