How to Handle Jeff Bezos and Other Confrontational Bosses

Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

“If you’re not good, Jeff will chew you up and spit you out. And if you are good, he will jump on your back and ride you into the ground.”

—From The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Bloomberg Businessweek writer Brad Stone.

Does Jeff Bezos, with his “notoriously confrontational” management style, sound like the kind of boss you’d want to work for?

Little surprise, then, that tied for second place on a list of companies with the highest employee turnover rate. Are there parallels between this ranking and Bezos’s management style? Of course.

Similar to other successful executives, such as Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer, Bezos comes across as a boss whose management style incorporates fear and intimidation. While it’s difficult to question Amazon’s success, there is a price to pay for such behavior, in the form of a constantly stressed-out corporate culture and high turnover.

The problem with a punishing and negative-reinforcement management style is that it never captures discretionary effort—a necessity in today’s workplace for long-term business survival. According to the science of human behavior, positive reinforcement maximizes performance, while threats, demands, and other forms of verbal abuse produce a level of performance that’s just high enough to escape or avoid such negative methods.

Believe it or not, employees can turn a confrontational boss around. Here are five steps to get you started:

Start by asking yourself, “Am I an enabler?” Examine your interactions to see if your behavior is unknowingly reinforcing your boss’s behavior. Any reaction that lets the offending boss know that he or she has shocked, annoyed, or otherwise played “gotcha” at your expense reinforces the bad behavior. When these behaviors happen, don’t respond emotionally in any way. Rather, simply ask what the boss wants to be done to handle his or her concern.

Become a positive reinforcer to the boss. Don’t react when the boss is in a “bullying mode,” but approach him or her at other times and ask how you might help with some task or project that’s giving the boss heartburn. As unlikely as it may seem, when you help on your own terms you become a positive reinforcer and subsequently reduce the boss’s unwanted behavior.

Help others to be successful. Employees who help peers solve problems before they get to the boss are particularly prized today. Most bosses relax when they see that the total burden of solving problems doesn’t rest on their shoulders alone.

Tell your boss what’s going on. Keep the boss informed about things that are going well. Don’t do this during or just after a tirade, only when these behaviors are absent.

Say “Thank you.” Thanking your boss is always appreciated and appropriate. Confrontational bosses are used to those who “suck up,” but rarely receive enough genuine thanks for their helpful acts and decisions. Don’t miss those opportunities.

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