What to Do When the Boss Acts Up

Professionally, I’ve found there is nothing more difficult when you’re a training consultant, being at the front of a room leading a session with a manager and their staff, and having the boss act up. Any trainer will tell you that this is a nightmare situation for a number of reasons; firstly, a manager behaving badly will give their staff the signal that they don’t need to take your training seriously, it encourages disruptive behaviour, undermines the trainer, and jeopardises the success of the training. Secondly, it can cause trouble for the trainer themselves. If they are presenting materials which staff are legally obliged to understand and implement, such as health and safety training, or if the trainer’s KPIs depend on improvement in staff metrics once training has been completed, this inappropriate behaviour can jeopardise the trainer’s job.

I had a client once that was implementing new software, and it was my role to conduct two preliminary training sessions, one for managers and one for staff. The management training was routine, one manager asked a lot of questions along the lines of ‘why do we have to bother with this?’, but I maintained my professionalism and explained why the processes for the new system would save time, and provided alternative solutions to increase efficiency. I didn’t think much of it, but at the end of the session, once my questioner had left, the other attendees came to me and apologised for her behaviour. I was bemused as I hadn’t thought she was rude, just disinterested and resistant; not uncommon for someone used to working with change management. They warned me that she was fighting the change because she had been hired due to her apparent skill and experience with our software. Having just finished a basic training session with her, where she struggled to keep up, I knew that this was a lie, and now that her colleagues had seen her in action with the system, they knew she was lying too.

The problems didn’t really start until the next session, where she attended the training of her staff members. She was their line manager, and so when she started to argue that she shouldn’t have to use our system because it didn’t do what she wanted it to do, that Excel was just as good and so much faster, they all looked extremely uncomfortable. Most looked annoyed, because they needed to see this system to be able to do their jobs and the session was devolving into her expressing her dissatisfaction with a systems change, but no one challenged her. The conversation ended with the manager attempting to get me to admit that our software couldn’t do what she needed, when its primary function was to complete the basic tasks she was outlining. At this stage the main problem with her behaviour was that she had become a time thief – halting our progress in class so that she could express her professional dissatisfaction.

Time flies by

Time flying by

I was as delicate as I could be, deferential, and sympathetic to her complaints, but I was also firm in my responses, refusing to give way and lie to help her to save face. The conversation ended with my assertion that if she didn’t like the software and didn’t want to use it, that was something she would have to take up with her boss because I was just the trainer. I then reaffirmed that the software was designed specifically to do what she needed to do, and that by discussing it we were falling behind, and so we needed to get back to work. She didn’t like that response and her behaviour went from belligerent to disruptive.

During a practice activity she began a conversation with a subordinate, she was sitting in the front row, and he was sitting in the back row. They loudly shouted across the room about her impending holiday on safari in Africa, disturbing the entire class. I politely requested they take the conversation outside if it couldn’t wait, as this was an activity which needed concentration. I decided that I would have to take her aside and speak with her during break time to request that she respect my training room and the fact that her staff had a right to be trained. At this stage I was reluctant to ask her to speak with me outside during the training, as I didn’t want her to lose face any more than she already had, and I certainly didn’t want to waste any more time arguing with her; I needed to respect the twenty other people in the class and ensure that they were as prepared as possible for the impending changes in their working environment.

Next, when I was demonstrating the correct procedure to check the participants work, she rose from her chair, excusing herself to go to the bathroom, walked behind me and started to make shadow puppets on the projection with her hands, including animal noises. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I laugh at the memory now, but at the time my jaw literally dropped open and I just stared at her for a moment, completely taken aback. I had never, and to this day have never, had a training participant try so valiantly to disrupt a training session. You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife; her entire staff were mortified, and I think that in that moment, with my mouth hanging open, she realised exactly how far she had fallen in the estimation of her team. I decided it was time to ask her to step outside so that I could speak with her regarding her unprofessionalism. Luckily for me, she fled to the bathroom and didn’t return.

I continued with the session; her staff were eager to learn, asked thoughtful questions and continued to participate in all the activities given to them. The gentleman who was so interested in his boss’s planned trip to Africa was sullen, but his colleagues ignored his sour disposition. I was relieved that she had left and did my best to continue to behave in a professional manner; I did not mention or comment on her behaviour to her staff. However, the minute training was over and the participants had left the building, I spoke to my boss and the relationship manager in the sales department, and told them exactly what had happened, what her colleagues had told me, and offered to write a report on the incident to provide to the client. They accepted my offer and we reported back to the client that day.

Your move

Your move

The moral of the story? Just because the manager in the room is behaving unprofessionally, doesn’t mean you have to do the same; stick to your guns and don’t be intimidated. If you need to take the boss aside and explain to them why their behaviour is not conducive to a positive and effective learning environment, then do so, but never do it in front of their staff. Don’t make a bad situation worse by inflaming egos, and causing someone to lose (even more) face in front of their subordinates. If the behaviour is highly disruptive, or doesn’t cease after the discussion, don’t be afraid to go to your superior and ensure that you are on record, reporting the damage this behaviour could have on your training outcomes. There is no reason why your record, and your metrics or KPIs, should be impacted by the unprofessionalism of another.

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