Will the Manager’s Real Personality Please Stand up?

This edition was inspired by “Sad” who posted a comment on Why Companies Love Micromanagers(August 10, 2007). Sad is experiencing a phenomenon that I’ve seen so many times before during my now thirty-six plus years in the working world – a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde“ manager. In Sad’s case, the manager is a split personality type who acts like a bullying tyrant in the office and Mr. Nice Guy in civilian life. While I have observed this myself to a limited degree, I am much more familiar with managers who become personality chameleons while on the job. Don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t. As I’ve stated before on numerous occasions, I am not a psychologist. My opinions are only based on what I’ve seen and experienced myself.

I once worked with a fellow like Sad describes about twenty years ago at the headquarters of a Fortune 500 sized corporation. Thankfully we were peer managers and not in a superior subordinate relationship. Ernie and I had developed a very friendly comradeship away from the office. We met through a car-pooling arrangement and discovered that we had many common interests. Since we did not live far from each other, we began to socialize and soon became good friends. It wasn’t until our departments began to interface during a cross functional project that I noticed Ernie’s split personality. This low-key “Good ole boy” tobacco chewing hunter, fisherman, gardener and beer drinking buddy would instantly transform into a pompous arrogant sycophant the minute he stepped through the employee entrance. His visceral underhanded attacks on co-workers and incessant devious backstabbing to gain the upper hand over peers were frightening. To listen to his speeches during meetings, you’d think that he was vying to become the next CEO constantly espousing the latest company line and vehemently defending every corporate decision. On the weekends, donned in bib overalls and swilling a PBR, he’d bitch about the company and the executives like a disaffected union shop steward. (No offense meant to union shop stewards!) I found Ernie’s seemingly schizophrenic behavior quite disturbing and became uncomfortable socializing with him off the job. I began to wonder which side of Ernie I was really dealing with and who he actually was. I felt that he was not trustworthy. I even left the car pool because of his antics.

My advice to Sad is not to be swayed in any way by the off-duty personality of the manager in question. While at work, it’s always: What you see is what you get. Don’t expect any change for the better and never hold out hope for a transformation. You will be woefully disappointed if you do. I know this all sounds very jaded and cynical but it’s also the voice of experience.

In my book, 160 0f deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic, I write about several other forms of these apparent split personality disorders. I refer to one as the St. Francis of Assisi Syndrome that seems to afflict many managers and executives who by all counts are nothing more than born jerks – and widely recognized as such. Perhaps you’ve seen this as well? It occurs when these characters return from management training sessions or seminars reincarnated as saints – at least temporarily. The transformations are sometimes amazing. The syndrome may last for weeks or even months. Subordinates and peers alike may be fooled into thinking that the individual has actually changed for the better. A false sense of security may even set in amongst their direct reports. Then, for no apparent reason, their original personalities will return with a vengeance. Perhaps it’s because there is no changing their hard coded DNA. At any rate, co-workers and subordinates often feel betrayed by these temporary metamorphoses. They begin to wonder why the company wastes its money even attempting to change such characters.

In the corporate world, where investors expect consistent returns, corporate honchos are always screaming about consistent practices and policies, and managers are demanding consistent performance from their direct reports; why are these inconsistent personality types allowed to flourish? Shouldn’t subordinates expect consistent personalities from their superiors as well – even if they’re horrible?

It’s tough enough trying to survive in today’s business world without wondering which of the Three Faces of Eve one has to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

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