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Bully Principal


Dear Dave
I’m one of a half dozen young engineers at our firm of 50 plus staff. We do a mix of municipal engineering and residential and commercial site development work. I’m four years out of school and have been with the firm since graduation. I joined this particular firm as a learning opportunity based on a recommendation of a professor, and for the firm’s recognized reputation for doing excellent work.

The firm does do great work, and I am learning, but the senior principal is very difficult to deal with. In front of clients and in public he is usually polished, patient and professional. In the office, behind closed doors, he is short-tempered, demanding and crude. It is not just me; he is this way with most of the staff. His personality swings at times can be so extreme it is difficult to believe it’s even the same person. As you might guess staff turnover at the firm, especially among young newcomers, is fairly constant.

I’ve become really stressed out and am contemplating leaving. Is there anything you can recommend I try before I make the final decision to bailout?
DG VA


Dear DG
I might be in the minority here, but I’m generally skeptical that the personality type you’ve described is likely (or even capable) to change their highly ingrained behavior based on anything you might say or do. But, if you feel the overall benefits derived from working at this particular firm are worthy of a last-ditch effort, you might try having a frank conversation with this individual.

Let the principal know (without explaining specifics) you have some work related questions and difficulties and that you would like to set a time when the two of you could sit down and discuss them. Even if he offers to discuss it on the spot, resist the temptation to just walk up to him and begin to unload. Let a few days pass between when you ask for the meeting and when the meeting will occur. Setting a future time should allow each of you the opportunity to be more focused when the conversation does finally take place.

Start positive and stay positive. Don’t threaten to quit or issue ultimatums. Begin your discussion by sharing your rationale for joining the firm and expressing how grateful you are for all that you’ve learned and are likely to learn going forward. This is delicate, but in situations such as this it is extremely important that you frame the issue as that of how the principal’s actions are causing you problems in a tactful manner such that the principal does not sense you are criticizing him personally. If he perceives you are attacking his personality, he will likely become immediately defensive and any hope for improvement will be lost. Be prepared to discuss two or three recent situational examples to make your points along with your ideas and suggestions on how the two of you could work together more effectively in similar future situations. Your goals will be to reach agreement between the two of you on ways to improve your working relationship and obtain a mutual promise to meet again as necessary to keep things moving in a positive direction. End the meeting by thanking the principal for his time and consideration.

It probably won’t take too long to see an indication if your effort will bear fruit. If you quickly find yourself back to the “same old, same old” you’ll have to decide whether a follow-up discussion is even worthwhile or if it is simply time to accept that any substantive change is highly unlikely to occur and act accordingly. Good luck.

 
 
Wahby and Associates