The worst boss: Hair-trigger

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We’ve all had some variation of the hair-trigger boss. What’s that, you ask? Let’s see if this situation resonates with you.

You’re working on a project. Your boss used one of the managerial tricks of the trade — “sense of urgency!” — and so you’re half-rushing, but trying to focus to make sure it gets done in the right time. (“I needed this yesterday,” he told you earlier.) You also understand that process is sacrosanct to your boss, so you’re trying to make sure you hit all your process targets along the way too. (“I gotta make sure this is in Dropbox and Basecamp,” you repeat to yourself.) You work pretty hard on this project and feel good about it. You also realize this is a first go-round, and things will change, tweak, and evolve. That’s the nature of how business is done, right?

You send it over to your boss. Within about 2 minutes, you get a reply. You assume it’s going to be “Got it, thx” because I mean, what can someone really evaluate in 120 seconds? You open the e-mail expecting the passive reply noted above, and …

“Why are headers in Arial?”

You don’t understand. Headers? Arial? Were there specific fonts that you needed to follow? Oh God.

As your stomach turns, another e-mail comes in. Oh God. You’re gonna vomit.

“Is this in Google Drive too? I don’t see it…”

Oh God. Shit is spiraling out of control now.

This is a hair-trigger boss. It’s a rare joy.

What creates the hair-trigger boss?

Most people totally whiff on what ‘management’ really is: people think it’s about managing tasks and time and productivity, when in fact it’s about managing the energy of other human beings towards some priority-linked goals.

It’s only natural that many people confuse these two things, though. Management isn’t intuitive. The things that got you there were tasks, deliverables, timelines, projects, and targets. That got you the bump-up, so you assume you have to manage those things in others. That’s part of it, yes — but when that’s all you manage, you become a micromanager, not a good manager.

So the first problem is that management isn’t intuitive. People think it’s about hitting targets. It’s not, really.

The second problem is that most organizations drown absolutely everything in process, and oftentimes it’s simply process for the sake of process. See, in an ideal world, process would only exist if it was going to drive forward business goals. But in the real world we all live and work in, process typically exists as a way to keep people in check and make sure they’re on-point and being managed properly.

The third tier is people’s quest for relevance at work, and people’s desire not to be seen as incompetent.

When you add up all these things, here’s what you get:

  • Most managers don’t want to be seen as incompetent, and they want to be seen as relevant (OK!)
  • Most managers love process more than their second-born (Got it!)
  • Most managers aren’t really clear on what being a manager means (Yeppers!)

Add those three together and bam: a minute-detail-chasing, process-adoring, relevance-panting shell of a man.

The hair-trigger boss is born.

What’s the advantage of being so hair-trigger?

To us lowly worker peons? None.

To the hair-trigger boss himself? Everything.

Think about it: if you don’t really know what you’re supposed to be managing (tons of documented research shows managers to be notoriously bad at setting their own priorities), then firing off a bunch of quick e-mails about process, fonts, or format is crucial to how you perceive yourself. Take the example above. Stuff like that has happened to me 12,911 times. Now, maybe I’m not the greatest detail guy — sure enough. But I usually submit quality work, and it still happens with hair-trigger bosses. And in each case, you know they’re back in their office patting themselves on the shoulder blades saying “Yea baby, leadership…”

Problem is, that’s not leadership. It’s not even really management. It’s hair-trigger frame-fucking. It’s focusing on the minute details and not the big picture.

Now, at this point you can turn to me and say “The devil is in the details,” and you know what? You ain’t wrong. Details are absolutely crucial to projects getting done and getting done right.

But there’s an inherent problem with the psychology of a hair-trigger boss. If everything is details and instantly something is wrong, or a crisis, or needs to be fixed, or OMG my hair is on fire, well, you’re teaching your employees two lessons:

  1. Boy Who Cried Wolf — How do we know when something really, truly is urgent?
  2. Details > Big Picture — How do we know what our work actually means?

Hair-trigger bosses do it because they think it makes them effective, details-driven, hard-line managers. In reality it makes them total schmucks with a massive amount of churn on their teams, which is terrible for the bottom-line even if the executives don’t realize it as they themselves hair-trigger their lieutenants. But again, we’re not paid to care about ‘talent strategy.’ We’re paid to hit those revenue marks, baby.

How do you deal with a hair-trigger boss?

Easiest way is to stay calm and collected, and answer all their fired-off e-mails as they come in — or go into their office and sit down with them as they go through each of their hair-trigger boss. It’s about being calm and patient. If you rise (or sink) to their level, it just makes the whole circle that much more brutal for both of you.

Trying to explain things to a hair-trigger boss is an unique challenge — especially if that boss is scared of his/her own boss, because then basically shit is just being kicked down the chain. Your boss is terrified of the level above, so he/she wants to kick that terror down to you. Very few people in organizations really understand what ‘accountability’ means. Most think it’s a synonym for ‘dress ’em down’ or ‘make ’em feel like trash.’ In reality, it’s about having conversations and course-correcting — but a hair-trigger boss will never understand that.

At my last gig, I worked with this guy who was totally beholden to a senior leader. The senior guy was this other guy’s ‘rabbi,’ meaning he shepherded him through the company. In exchange for that, he constantly treated the subordinate like garbage. We were at a trade show once and his boss (the senior guy) blows right by us with not even a hello. Thought it was an isolated incident, yea? Nope. Happened three-four more times at the trade show. Complete joke of a situation, and every time the lower-ranking guy submitted a deliverable, the boss would instantly screech, bellow, and holler about the minute things that were wrong with it. It all caused me to write this post.

That’s all an example of being a hair-trigger boss. Not sure I’d include it in the 12 worst types of managers, or the 7 circles of managerial hell, but it’s close.

You ever had a hair-trigger boss? Leave some stories in the comments.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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