I shut down my screaming boss the first time he raised his voice at me

Demanding a respectful attitude early in your relationship with a superior is key to establishing a harmonious and professional workplace environment. What are other tactics professionals can deploy to build mutual respect with colleagues?

What happened?

About twenty-five years into my career as a nurse anesthetist, I worked at a surgery center with several operating rooms and attending surgeons. There was a young surgeon I had not yet worked with but had a reputation for being difficult. The first time I was assigned to an operation he was leading, I made a point of politely introducing myself and asking about his preferred anesthetic procedures for patients. I noticed that the other five medical staff in the room assisting in the operation seemed to walk on eggshells around him and rush to meet his demands to please him.

Otherwise, the preparation went smoothly and I felt his reputation had perhaps been exaggerated. Then as I was adjusting the gas for the patient, he barked across the room at me without looking up, “Put down the bed!” In my position near the patient I was closest to the bed height dials, but I was also engaged in putting the patient safely under general anesthesia. Before I could finish what I was doing, he repeated himself, this time yelling impatiently in front of the team, “Put down the bed!” At the time, it felt very demeaning and condescending.

How did you respond?

I used to tolerate this kind of behavior earlier in my career, but at this point I could pick and choose my work and I didn’t care to be treated this way. I stood up and asked him sternly, “Dr. Y*, would you talk to your mother that way? You know, I’m probably as old as your mother.” The whole operating room went silent, expecting him to bite my head off. After a long pause, he said sheepishly, “No, I wouldn’t.” I then continued, “Can you say, [my name], put the bed down please?” He pulled down his surgical mask and gave me an exaggerated smile, “[my name], please put the bed down?” And we had no further problems during the rest of the procedure.

Reflections in hindsight?

I subsequently worked many surgeries with Dr. Y after this first experience. I’m glad that I demanded a respectful attitude early in the relationship as it allowed us to work productively together later. With certain personalities, you have to set the tone of the professional relationship immediately to avoid uncomfortable behavior.

*Names changed to preserve anonymity.

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