Coping with Fire Eaters


Do you have a difficult boss who overwhelms, intimidates, or generally runs over those that work for them? One such difficult boss is the Fire Eater. In Coping with Difficult Bosses, Robert Brahmson writes about how to cope with Fire Eaters.

Fire Eaters
Fire Eaters are characterized as irritable, moody, hot-tempered, and explosive. Those who work with them, see their bosses switch from reasonable to rabid with disconcerting rapidity. Fire Eaters’s sudden and often seemingly unprovoked outbursts are the product of two simultaneous events: feeling personally threatened while, at the same time, under pressure to take some sort of action. What personally threatens them is a fear that they will be deprived of what they want most, to be liked and approved of, to have their achievements recognized, or to be seen as competent and in charge.

Coping with Fire Eaters
Bramson provides the following recommendations for coping with Fire Eaters:

  • Let the Fire Eater run down. Fire Eaters usually run out of steam. They eventually realize they have raged at you, a trusty staff member. Waiting for them to rundown, saves the effort of forcing you way into the interaction.
  • Get their attention. Neutral statements like “Wait a minute!”, “Stop!”, “Yes!” or simply repeating the person’s name, loudly and sharply will often break through.
  • Repair the threat. Through voice, words and attitude, convey the urgent message that you take your boss seriously, that you are interested in what they have to say, and that your intention is to be supportive.
  • Break off the interaction. When everyone involves is showing signs of emotional overload, confusion, fear or anger take a breather. For example, “Wait a minute, I need a little time to think; I say we break now for ten minutes.”
  • Make it private. Privacy can prevent a momentary irritation from escalating into a full-blown battle. Suggest that the two of you go into a nearby office or conference room.
  • Identify the mood cycle. Understanding your boss’s mood cycles can make life easier. Some people are “moody” by nature. They tend to cycle between feeling somewhat better and somewhat worse over a period that may range from weeks to months.
  • Identify your boss’s sensitivities. The more you can discern the likely causes of your boss’s explosions, the better your chances of heading them off.
  • Consider direct confrontation. Fire Eaters are often ignorant of the full consequences of their behavior. (See Behavior Blindness.) Think through what and how you plan to say to avoid triggering more explosions. Consider a writing a script to avoid hints of accusing, nagging or complaing. For example, “When this happens, I react in this way, and it has these effects.”
  • Use humor without malice. Humor can help disarm a Fire Eater. The humor needs to emphasize two messages: 1) “I recognize and appreciate your strength” and 2) “But I’m not blown away by it.”

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • You can change yourself faster than you can change your boss.
  • Knowing your boss’s sensitivies will help you avoid triggering explosions.
  • “When this happens, I react in this way, and it has these effects” is a great prescriptive way to give your boss feedback on the impact of their behavior.
  • It’s possible that rather than a Fire Eater, you’re dealing with a good boss gone bad due to either crossed expectations, behavior blindness or an interactional accident.

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