A Field Guide To Boss Behavior

Published: Mar 31, 2009

 Workplace Issues       

Bosses, like birds, come in a wide variety of colorful species, andlearning how to identify yours can be instructive and fun. To assist you, Ioffer "A Field Guide to Bosses," with apologies to winged friends andspecial thanks to contributing boss-watchers.

Time-Wasting Sapsucker: This bossmistakes activity for productivity. Can be seen pounding head against thewall like a woodpecker and encouraging others to do same. A stickler forpunctuality, he'll retaliate against latecomers with passive-aggressivescheduling. Can damage homes as well. Habitat: under your skin. Call: "Ihave a new project for you." Says one retired history professor: "Nomeaningful creative ability, poor social skills," but leaves a lot ofdroppings. Not to be confused with the Yellow-Bellied Fence Sitter, whosepreferred habitat is uncertainty.

Winking-Eyed Rooster: A morningperson, this cocky strutter manages by fear. He picks on everyone butfavors young and weak. Prone to sarcastic clapping. Diets on negatives,pointless rules and supercilious displays of power. Greets friends byfake-boxing. Habitat: the spotlight. Call: "Whodda Man?" "Very easy tospot," says software engineer Robert Czarnecki. "Just listen forshouting."

Pigeon-Toed Thrasher: Common in allclimes. Poor long-distance vision and weak sense of direction makesmigration impossible. Flits from task to task. Multiple top priorities.Scatters e-mails when alarmed. Mimics every opinion to be right aboutsomething. Like other thrashers, "lots of commotion and precious littleaccomplishment," says ornithologist Charles Duncan. Habitat: thickets.Call: "I knew it!"

Really Red-Faced Cardinal: Ferociousin defense of his place in the pecking order, this boss is so territorialhe'll attack his own reflection in windows. Still upset about somethingthat happened decades ago. Prefers unthreatening cohorts and limits theircontact with outsiders. Nostril flare and spitting distinguishes him from aTanager (see below). Habitat: behind closed doors. Call: throaty,unpublishable exclamations.

Micro-Tanager: Common control freakthat circles the floor and hovers over desks. Has firm, stifling grip.Hoards credit for herself. "She can't let go of things," says theprofessor. "She can't believe that any of us are going to do the job theway it needs to be done." Misdirects others to keep everyone guessing.Habitat: other people's business. Call: a clipped "I better do it."

Sharp-Tongued Grouse: Grumbler;displays permanent disappointment. Beaten down by superiors and unimpressedwith staffers. Feathers always ruffled. "Nothing is ever good enough," saysone research librarian. Stays low to the ground and makes no secret abouthow he'd run the place, but is too chicken to tell it to bosses. Thinkshe's proved himself and shouldn't have to work for advancement. Makes youwrite your own performance review but never submits it. Habitat: pharmaciesand ledges. Call: a plaintive, whining moan.

Puff-Chested Nuthatch: This boss is animble climber. Considered an excellent self-promoter who tells underlingsto work hard so he can look good. Desperately tries to be chairman'swing-man. Spends "all his time preening his personal image," says spotterRichard Clark. Distinguished from the similar Sharp-Elbowed Loon in thathe's not good with names or hallway chatter and is more self-forgiving.Blames lapses on his secretary and thinks she doesn't know it. Habitat: themirror on his office door. Call: overzealous laughter at CEO's bad jokes,interspersed with a rhythmic "Absolutely."

Eleven-Fingered Vulture: Loves tochew out people in public. Grabs prime office space from freshly fledgedcolleagues. Tiny head relative to his body. Tan and leathery, he winters inBoca time-share. "You wouldn't want one as a pet," says Mr. Duncan.Habitat: racquetball courts. Call: "Not much of an athlete, are ya?"

Two-Faced Snipe: This boss'scourtship ritual involves huge promises that are never kept. He willabandon any toady under his wing he suspects is disloyal or ascending.Shows charm but often backstabs and sets up others for failure. Preferscover of dense brush to open fields. "Virtually no one is safe," says theresearch librarian, "from verbal lacerations." Eats off of other people'splates. Habitat: mud. Call: a conspiratorial, "C'mere a minute ..."

Once-Crested Bufflehead: Walks like aboss, talks like a boss but is really a quack. Had a great idea once andwon't let you forget it. Coasts on his own hot air. Gathers periodicals forthe men's room. Lengthy pauses during his long tales make you think he's aliar. Says one Los Angeles lawyer: "This boss has advanced as far as hewill ever go." Habitat: threadbare laurels. Call: "Once, when I ..."

Sage Dove: Tame and approachable,this variety nods while walking. Bright, gregarious and a touch irreverent,solicits opinions from his flock. Commands respect from and for his directreports. Defers to their expertise. Habitat: out on a limb for you. Call: areassuring coo. "I'd try to seek out folks like him," says Howard Karten,who last spotted one 30 years ago. "Sadly, they're few and far between -- atrue rara avis."