Asshat Leaders – Who they are and how to beat them

The Corporate Overlords are watching…

When a team is tanking, the first place I look is not the team members, but the team leaders.  Most team leaders look downward at their teams – and they are wrong.  I have discovered a breed of incompetent leader out there.  For lack of better words, the asshat leader. Probably with those two words I have conjured up images of several of your colleagues at work.  Welcome to working in the 21st century.

Just to help you narrow the field, here are signs of an asshat leader:

  • The use cryptic methodologies (Six Sigma, BPR, matrix management, ITIL, or whatever acronym/fad de jour they mystically bond to) when the team members don’t use that methodology.
  • The asshat leader blames the failure of the team on the members not having the right attitude.
  • An asshat sells out team members to senior leadership as scapegoats for their own abysmal failure. “Welcome to the undercarriage of the bus!”
  • Asshats attempt to micromanage other professionals in their field of expertise.
  • Asshats don’t listen.  This stems from not caring.
  • When documenting the team activities they do so as to shunt the blame to others.  The asshat will never put their name to anything that is not viewed as stunningly successful.  They have no issues with putting other people’s names to questionable work or output that might raise the ire of others.
  • In desperation, an asshat leader tries “teaming activities,” as a way to identify new targets of their abuse.
  • The asshat leader puts their name on other people’s work. Yes, if you lead a team, you contribute to the output – but the asshat assumes that the output of the team is due to their sheer and dazzling brilliance, and steals the credit from the others.
  • This type of leader assigns work according to how they operate, not what is most optimal for the team.
  • Asshats provide feedback that is inconsistent, not timely, not-actionable, or subject to the erratic neurons firing off inside their tiny little brains.
  • The asshat expects you to mimic their behavior – that their way of acting is the only one that is acceptable.  Anyone whose personalities don’t mesh with theirs is potential target.
  • Asshats play favorites.  The people that kowtow to them are their favored employees, the rest “just don’t get it yet.” It’s like 4th grade with that douchbag teacher that didn’t like you for no reason.
  • Asshats are focused on their next job, assignment, or promotion.  They care little for their team and more about what’s in it for their career growth.
  • They exhibit paranoid behavior with anyone that doesn’t immediately obey their orders.  Anyone that doesn’t “play ball” is painted as conspiring against them.
  • Asshat leaders talk about “Me” and “I” rather than “we.” The only time “we” comes up is if blame is leveled by senior leadership directly at the asshat in question.
  • The asshat will talk down to team members, as if they are the elementary school teacher in a classroom of “special needs” children.  This comes from this brand of leader’s belief they are superior to everyone else.  “I must be, I’m a leader!”
  • An asshat will ruin other people’s careers to preserve their own. While they never will acknowledge this behavior, it is their default setting when issues arise.  They are infallible while the morons that work under them are grossly incompetent.  Some even maintain a running list of team member’s personal and professional failings – like Nixon and his enemies list.   Yes, they are so bad they are taking leadership lessons from Richard Fuc*ing Nixon.
  • Asshats are junkies for data that supports their inane reasoning.  They live for spreadsheets, PowerPoint decks, etc., that validate their thinking – or can be twisted in some way to support their perception.  The only data that they love more is whatever they can use against their team members to snap them back in-line.  Data is the asshat’s Meth.
  • Asshats are not open to suggestions outside of what they want to hear.  You are more or less expected to tell them only what they want or good news.  The harbinger of bad news or data that doesn’t fit their expectations is ridiculed and immediately painted a target.
  • The asshat does not demonstrate professional respect to those on their team.
  • Asshats don’t respect other people’s time.  They schedule meetings at weird hours, and invite people who don’t need to be there, because of what they want, not what the team needs.
  • The asshat leader does not illicit the requirements for success from the team but dictates them.
  • Asshats are aggressive to hide their insecurities.  In fact most will claim to have strong skills in the very areas where they are weakest.
  • Asshats are never wrong…well, they never admit to being wrong.  Where a good leader owes up to mistakes and moves on, the asshat leader levels blame and fault at others.
  • These “leaders” spend most of their efforts and energy managing up, rather than leading those below them.
  • They don’t acknowledge the successes of those on their team.  The only successes that matter are those that they claim as their sole effort.
  • An asshat will favor an under-performer/achiever who behaves the way they want, over a productive team member who chaffs at their management “style.”
  • They are prone to temper tantrums.  Yes, it’s immature, but they do it.  They confuse these tantrums with leading the team.
  • Asshats rely on bullying tactics to get work done.  Asshats never see themselves as schoolyard bullies, but they are.
  • When cornered, the asshat leader will lie to save their own worthless skin.
  • An asshat will find a high level leader/sponsor and whisper in their ear the failings of everyone on their team, rather than extoll their team members successes.   This senior leader needs to be easily manipulated or focused only on the results, not the body count along the way, for the asshat to have what they need for success.
  • Asshats play team members off of each other rather than attempt to bring the team together.
  • An asshat leader generates unreasonable expectations of the team.
  • The asshat leader circumvents official employee performance mechanisms to implement their own.
  • An asshat sees team members often as inferior children and treats them as such.
  • When faced with resistance, the asshat leader will seek to replace team members with those that are more pliable to their evil whims.
  • An asshat leader will not change their style to fit the team and the objectives.  They know best, so why change?
  • Usually the asshat has a string of failures in their past but has somehow managed to convince leadership that it wasn’t their fault.
  • The asshat never allows people to demonstrate what they can do.  Instead they dictate and dominate.
  • Asshat leaders have egos that must be constantly fed from the crushed souls they leave in their wake.
  • Upper management often sees asshat leaders as “results oriented,” or, “driven.”  They overlook the emotional and long-term repercussions of the asshat’s actions for tangible output.
  • An asshat is more worried about their career than they are about their current project.  Everything they do is framed around how this work might reflect on them long term…”Will this prevent me from getting that promotion?”
  • Asshat’s always have a few weak-minded individuals that kiss their ass to ride their coattails.  These minions often lack a will, mind, or heart of their own.
Yeah, I’m going to need to claim credit for your work…okay?

Beating the Asshats At Their Own Game

First – study the list.  Know your enemy.  Understanding the asshat in its natural state is critical to your sanity and well-being as well.  Understanding how the asshat leader reacts and behaves will actually give you an upper hand in dealing with them.  You’re welcome!

You’ll be tempted to ask to not work on the team.  Remember, the asshat leader manages up and your attempt to bail on the project is going to be reflected to senior leadership as validation that you were part of the problem with the team.  Running from bullies rarely works.  I can also tell you that battling bullies also rarely works either.  As my grandfather used to say, you don’t wrestle with the sow – you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

So how do you beat an asshat leader at their own game?  First, you refuse to play that game.  This isn’t about beating the asshat (though that has a great seductive appeal).  This is about manipulating the asshat to do what is right.  While I know you were hoping to savor some sort of sweet victory, with the asshat’s head under the heel of your boot; you’ll have to settle for something less-Deadpool-ish.

Asshat leaders are ego-centric…it’s all about them; their desires; their petty little feelings; their career aspirations.  Going to battle with them plays right into what they seek – identification of resistance leaders.  If you want to take them on in a straight-up battle, you simply paint a target on yourself and it makes your efforts, however morally correct, the focus of their unrelenting abuse.

You have to take that ego and use it to your advantage.  You need to position yourself positively with the asshat leader.  You want to make sure they and the project are successful.  That’s the message that must be conveyed.  You’re not the valiant leader of the resistance movement against them, you are a trusted ally.   You may need to play to their ego from time-to-time.  “I know you’ve had more experience than me doing this, I really am curious, what do you think about Z?”  Yes, you will throw up a little in the back of your mouth each time you do it – but suck it up.

This is hard to do – trust me, I know.  You have to walk a fine line so you are not ratting out your co-workers and team members.  You have to always frame issues you raise as, “I’m telling this to you only because I want this project to be successful.”  The asshat is used to minions trying to ride their coattails – and they love it.  They will see you as a possible minion and eventually will confide in you.  They will see you as being on their side (against everyone else).  That’s how you have to play it with an asshat.

This does not mean that you should become a mindless minion in their thrall.  You need to become a conduit for them to obtain information.  Remember, asshats are information addicts.  If you can, position yourself to be one of the places they turn for data.  This can put you in a strong position to sway the decisions since you have to be there when they get the information they are so addicted to.  Example:  “I did a quick survey of the team and they seem to want information about X.”  “Who said that?  They don’t need that?”  “Well, the survey was anonymous but the information is useful to you.  If we could provide them with some of the less-sensitive information about X, that should allow you to hit the deadlines you’ve been asking for without any excuses on the team members parts.”

Controlling the data flow that goes to the asshat, or manipulating it, gives you the ability to control them.  Often times they are so hooked on information that they overlook the motivation of the person giving it to them.  As long as what you do is for the betterment of the project or the team, it can be wedged into your moral framework. You see, you’re there to guide them on this journey to a successful project.

Which brings up another good point – how you communicate with the asshat.  You have every reason to hate these idiots and to minimize your contact with them.  In fact, you’ll prefer to send emails as to meeting with them.  Sorry, but you have to do the exact opposite.  You need to make sure you have live meetings with them (virtual or otherwise).  You need to be there to control how information is interpreted.  Avoid sending emails or things that can be held against you in some way.  Besides, if you’re going to stay in the good graces of the asshat (which you have to do) live interactions are  best.

Asshats will try and manipulate you against the others on the project.  They will “confide” in you about others.  They are doing the same thing with others, talking about you.  Let it go.  Sometimes what you can do is be a buffer between the asshat leader and their victim.  “Why don’t I pull Bob aside and see if I can get to his motivation for speaking out in the meeting.”  It’s a shitty role to play, but by being that filter, you save people from frustration and the low morale that could impact the project.  (I didn’t say that this was going to be easy…)

Another role you can adopt is that of cheerleader.  With asshats, it’s all about them.  A cheerleader function is one where you make sure that the asshat acknowledges the contribution of others.  You can do this off-line of big meetings.  “You know, if might be good to let Mary know in a short message that she did a great job.”  Asshats will never think of this kind of positive reinforcement on their own, since they are the known centers of the universe.  In other words, you are that person that is the conscious (which they lack), that can remind them to do what is right.  You are that person whispering in their ear, “Remember thou art mortal.”

Get a network together for support.  There are mental and moral burdens heaped on you when you work for asshats.  You need a safe person or persons you can vent to, bounce ideas off of, or just ask, “Am I freaking nuts?”  A support network of friends and colleagues who can identify with your plight and at least validate what you are going through is important for your own mental state of mind.  If nothing else, they can testify for you at your trial if/when you lose it and kill the asshat in question.   “Your honor, that woman tortured my friend on a daily basis – she deserved decapitation.”  Legal disclaimer – As a member of the Corporate Overlords I cannot condone acts of violence in the workplace.  They are wrong.  Especially if you don’t film them (wink).

Ultimately working with an asshat leader is something we all do at one point or another.  Eventually they move on, get promoted (what in the fu*k is with that?) or are exposed for the corporate frauds that they are.  Patience is critical, and a good thick skin to deflect the slings and arrows of the asshat’s attempts to consume your soul.


One thought on “Asshat Leaders – Who they are and how to beat them

  1. microraptor

    Another sign of an asshat leader: far more focused on micromanaging entirely unimportant details about how you work than anything regarding the actual project.

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