Diagnose why boss is blowing top

Q. My boss seems to be completely miffed by an expense report I didn't file. I just can't believe he doesn't have more important things to be upset about. He is ready to fire me because I didn't file one small report. Is there any way to get at what is really going on?

A. You are wise to realize it is absolutely not the expense report that is making him want to fire you. If you want to keep your job, you need to find out which of two situations is going on:

1. He thinks this expense report is an example of a problem he has had over and over with you.

2. The expense report is a trigger for some large emotional issue for your boss.

Your problem solving will be entirely different depending on which of these two scenarios you think is going on. Start by honestly considering whether you tend to screw up paperwork. There is a personality type at work that tends to enjoy big picture issues and blow off administrative tasks as petty. Have you tended to ignore administrative tasks?

If your boss is the opposite personality profile (called on "S" on the Meyers-Briggs test) then details are his life. For you to blow off paperwork is tantamount to you declaring war on what he values. Even if you think curing cancer is the point of your job, if you don't file the right paperwork, he will fire you.

If you've been inadvertently disrespectful to your boss's administrative priorities, immediately admit your error and strive to make paperwork important. You will save your job and amaze your boss.

If, however, the problem is your boss has an emotional issue that has been triggered by you not filing paperwork, a different approach would be indicated. Let's say that your boss has a huge issue with people thinking he is stupid. Let's say he believes you think that his request to submit an expense report is ... well, stupid ... can you see the problem here?

People don't always get mad at us for logical reasons at work. People often are walking around with a long history of emotional issues in one particular area, and then we step right on that land mine.

If your boss has been triggered emotionally by your behavior, you need to meet privately with him. You need to tell him you know it might appear to him that by not filing your expense report you are criticizing his management. You need to ask him to give you information about what it meant to him that you forget to file that report.

In our workplace, the devil really is in the details of what an action, a word or a behavior means to someone else. We swim in a sea of symbols with other people who are also making up stuff about what we say, do or don't do. By the way, even if you do think your boss's request to file paperwork is stupid, if this is his issue and you want your job, please don't confess this.

Before you fix a problem in your workplace, you want to start by assessing the origins of the problem. Otherwise, all your solutions will miss the target. You can't fix an issue that you start by misunderstanding.

The last word(s)

Q. One of my customers has cut me off. I have no idea what has happened and have tried to communicate with him. Is there a technique that can make me find out what happened?

A. No, there are times when people at work will cut us off for irrational and personal reasons. If he hasn't responded to your attempts, chasing someone who is trying to get away will just result in hostility.

(Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker, also appears as the FOX Channel's "Workplace Guru" each Monday morning. She's the author of "Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything" (Hay House, 2006). You can contact Dr. Skube at http://www.interpersonaledge.com or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. Sorry, no personal replies.)

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