Kate White’s Corner: Does It Pay to Be a Ballbuster?


kate whiteWhen 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?

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.

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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.

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  • Susanna

    What’s the best way to deal with a ballbusting boss?

  • katie

    This is GREAT. I do struggle with the “hot” reaction not going very effectively. This is a great redirect and reframing way to respond to disappointments from your team members.

  • Elle

    Very interesting article. I am in a similar position, but up against two alphas that oversee me. I too would be interested in know what suggestions you have for dealing with ballbusting bosses.