Dealing with Your Childish Boss
Managing up to a supervisor who behaves like a toddler? Neuroscience can help.
We’ve all known them—bosses who act like children when they get bad news, face a crisis, or perceive a bureaucratic slight. Some are screamers. Some are whiners. Some just go “into the bunker” and won't talk to anyone at all. How do you deal with a childish boss? To find out, I sat down with Donna Volpitta, founder of the Center for Resilient Leadership. Today she works with organizations and leaders of all ages, but Volpitta started her career looking at insights from neuroscience to inform better parenting.
Volpitta uses a model called “the resilient mind-set.” It draws on the concept of the ant and the grasshopper, characters from one of Aesop’s fables that were repurposed by Northeastern University’s David DeSteno and Claremont McKenna College’s Piercarlo Valdesolo in their book, Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us (Random House, 2013). DeSteno and Valdesolo write that people tend to use one of two opposing modes of thinking when deciding how to respond to challenges: one is focused on long-term success (the ant), and the other on short-term survival (the grasshopper). (In the fable, the ant spends all of his summer preparing for the coming winter by storing food and preparing shelter, while the grasshopper spends the warm months singing and playing. Spoiler alert: the grasshopper dies.)
“The ant and the grasshopper represent different parts of the brain,” Volpitta explains. “The ant lives in the prefrontal cortex, which is located at the front of the brain and is in charge of high-level thinking and executive functions. The grasshopper lives in the reptilian brain, which is located in the center of the brain and is responsible for our ‘freeze, flight, or fight’ survival instinct. There is a switching station between ant and grasshopper in the limbic system, home to our emotions. It is here that the choice is made to put the ant or the grasshopper in charge of any given decision.”
For example, Volpitta says, “When your boss is having a tantrum, he is ‘going grasshopper.’ The grasshopper is like a toddler—he wants what he wants and he wants it now. Because the grasshopper is in charge of short-term survival, his primary responses are as basic as freeze, flight, and fight. That is why you get the withdrawal, whining, and screaming from your boss.”
“When your boss is having a tantrum, he is ‘going grasshopper’—he wants what he wants, and now.”
What I really wanted to know, however, is how to keep the grasshopper from coming out in the first place. “If you are going to control the grasshopper, you have to understand the triggers: a primary threat or primary reward,” Volpitta says. “When we experience primary threats or rewards, our amygdala switches control of the brain from the ant to the grasshopper because we are in need of ‘grasshopper skills.’ If a car is speeding toward you, the amygdala switches control to the fast and strong grasshopper. If we are threatened, we want the part of our brain that is concerned with short-term survival, not deep contemplation. Makes sense, right?”
Primary rewards have also evolved as a survival mechanism. For example, food is a primary reward because it gives us necessary nutrition. “When food was less plentiful, it was those people who were able to kick their grasshopper into high gear who survived,” Volpitta adds.
Unfortunately, managing this behavior in your boss isn’t really as easy as offering a sandwich. But it’s important to recognize the threats and rewards that unleash the grasshopper in the office. Volpitta uses neuroscientist David Rock’s SCARF model of these common triggers:
Status: our social standing within any given group
Certainty: our ability to predict what is about to happen
Autonomy: our feeling that we have control
Relatedness: the degree to which we see ourselves as similar
Fairness: whether or not we feel like we are getting a good deal
For example, pointing out that bad news also affected other departments or organizations may avert a Status or Fairness trigger. Deploying a practiced protocol to deal with the threat can help establish Certainty. And once the grasshopper is raging? Volpitta pointed out that bringing your boss a possible solution along with a problem can help engage the ant brain. “Working through options to solve a problem can help restore Certainty and Autonomy,” she says. “These are natural ant brain tasks.”
All of this is good, but are working professionals really going to relate to ants and grasshoppers? “I actually find that they are very comfortable with it,” Volpitta told me. “It is funny that I developed the model by working with children, but all of the concepts apply. Teams start to talk about how they can develop the project in a way that soothes the grasshoppers. One manager told me that she started losing it in a meeting, stopped herself, and then said to everyone, ‘Sorry, I was having a grasshopper moment because I felt threatened. I get it now.’ She said it completely smoothed everything over because it was so easy to understand.”
Volpitta notes that simply having language that makes it possible to articulate what is happening—and tying it to natural brain function rather than a fault in character—makes it possible to understand and deal with bad behavior in a constructive way. “That’s the first step toward resolution, be it with a toddler, a boss, spouse, and even yourself,” she says.