When I was in my late twenties and scored my first job as a boss (overseeing just a handful of people, but still…), there were three questions that gnawed at me during those early weeks: 1) How could I be sure to meet my new boss’s expectations and really excel at my job? 2) Would it seem self-important if I added a few houseplants to my office? 3) How much of a ballbuster should I be?
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That third question was one many females were asking themselves at that point in time. A growing number of women were beginning to assume management and leadership positions at work and we were eager to determine the best strategies for taking command, motivating subordinates, and playing office politics.
It became clear soon enough that if you weren’t smart about how you navigated situations, if you seemed at all soft, people, particularly men, would roll right over you. Much of the advice offered to women in career books and articles stressed the importance of being really assertive, even aggressive if necessary. We were often coached to play hardball, act tough, take no prisoners. Yes, even be a ballbuster.
Though a lot has changed since then, women still wonder how tough they need to be, and men wrestle with that too. You hear about these legendary boss-zillas in powerful jobs and wonder if success really calls for behaving a bit like a monster at times.
Here’s my stance after decades as a boss: Being a ballbuster doesn't work—at least in the long run. And it probably doesn’t feel authentic for you either, does it? Have you ever verbally smacked-down someone you work with? How did you feel afterward? Even if there were a few moments of satisfaction, I bet they didn’t last long.
Don’t get me wrong, however. When you face a challenge with someone professionally, you must take action. The strategy I found most successful, time and time again, is one a former colleague summed up this way:
“Cold works better than hot.”
By cold I mean being strong, clear, unemotional, and, in certain cases, even frosty. Leave the puffing, ranting, huffing, bitching, threatening, name-calling, and ballbusting at the door.
Cold is a tricky skill to learn because conflicts at work often trigger an emotional reaction, and thing can become heated quickly. So whenever possible, give yourself a chance to cool down before reacting. Here are a few cool-over-hot strategies, depending on whom you’re dealing with:
Subordinates: You have a lot of power when it comes to the people reporting to you, so you may feel entitled to read the riot act when they underperform or misbehave. But resist the urge. Kicking ass and taking names can result in momentary flop sweat and compliance on your employee’s part, but it won’t make the person more creative, productive, motivated or loyal.
Let’s say you have a subordinate who continually shows up past starting time. Take him aside privately and coolly say, “You’ve been coming in late several times a week. That’s not acceptable. You need to be here by x every day.” Trust me, he’ll get the message. Employees, I’ve found, generally take the cold approach more seriously. When you’re hot and bothered, even if it’s justified, people who work for you can become defensive and dismiss your reaction as your “just being a bitch” or “having a bad hair day.”
When an employee underperforms, it often pays to ask for an explanation. You got handed a lame-ass report? Ask the person what she thought the objective was and how much time she put into it. Maybe she wasn’t clear on what the assignment was. If you simply chastise her, you’re never going to know the root cause of the problem. What you’re really looking for with an employee is a win-win—meaning you get what you need and he/she flourishes.
Peers: Dealing with peers, particularly those on your level but in other departments, is often a challenge. You have no actual power over the person, so conflicts have to be negotiated. One of the reasons people sometimes start ballbusting with peers is because there’s a sense that the person who demonstrates the most muscle will triumph. But victory can be short-term if you go that route.
My brother Jim, a former hedge fund professional, taught me a great trick for working out an issue with a peer: Start by focusing on the areas you agree on rather than the ones you don't. Each person should rank things on a scale of one to five in terms of priority. When the two of you discover the points you are actually in sync on, it will be easier to hash out a solution in a cool and calm way.
People outside the organization: Such as clients. Or vendors. When you’re the buyer in a seller’s market, you may think that coming on super strong will help you get to the front of the line, but guess what? The other person doesn’t care how annoyed or angry you are. A cool-headed strategy works best here too. In fact, being nice often works brilliantly.
"At three of the magazines I edited, one of my biggest responsibilities was convincing celebrity publicists to give us their big female stars for the cover."
At three of the magazines I edited, one of my biggest responsibilities was convincing celebrity publicists to give us their big female stars for the cover. Unfortunately, the number of stars who can really sell magazines is relatively small, so every women’s magazine was after the same pool of actresses and singers—like Angelina Jolie or Lady Gaga. It was so hard to get the celebs you wanted when you wanted them, and at times you felt like screaming in frustration. But publicists never gave you stars if you bullied them. They rewarded you because you rationally pitched your case and convinced them it was the best move for their client.
One of my most vivid memories was when a major singer who we’d manage to snag for a cover announced she was pulling out just five days before the photo shoot. The reason her manager gave: “She’s having a bit of a meltdown.”
If there was ever a time when I was tempted to be a ballbuster, it was then. But I took a few deep breaths and called one of the top guys at the record company. I shared my thoughts about what a jam this development had created for the magazine, and I asked for his help in working the matter out. “This cover will be great for both of us,” I told him, “and it would be terrific if we could make it happen.”
He agreed. Within five hours the shoot was back on. And that cover sold like crazy. Have I always followed my own advice? Unfortunately not. At times I’ve let my annoyance get the better of me. But I almost always regretted it. And whenever I’ve taken those deep breaths and chosen cold over hot, the results have always been good.
Kate White’s most recent career book, "I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This" is available through Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Her next suspense novel, "Eyes on You," is due out June 24. For more career tips, go to katewhitecareers.com.