Coping with Sherman Tanks

As an entrepreneur dealing with entrepreneurs, one of the more useful books in my library is, surprisingly, not a business book, but a book on popular psychology.

Coping with Difficult People, by Robert M. Bramson Ph.D., discusses a handful of “difficult” personality types and gives advice on how best to deal with them. The very first type covered is the “Sherman Tank”, a personality with which I am well familiar.

Sherman Tanks are the bullies of the business world. Dr. Bramson summarizes the behavior perfectly:

Sherman Tanks come out charging, not always physically perhaps, but their whole demeanor expresses “attack.” They … are abusive, abrupt, intimidating, and, most important, overwhelming. They are arbitrary and often arrogant in tone. When criticizing something you’ve said or done, they seem to attack not just the particular behavior but you, and they do so in an accusing way. They are contemptuous of their victims, considering them to be inferior people who deserve to be bullied and disparaged.

The world of entrepreneurs has potentially an over-abundance of Sherman Tanks. This is because the entrepreneurial life is rather suited to this type of person. Sherman Tanks often have trouble working in an organization where they don’t always get their way. Many will strike out on their own, willingly or not. The need for Sherman Tanks to prove themselves is amplified in an venture environment where the Tanks may view themselves to be in a “do or die” situation. Others may believe that all will be fine now that they have, at long last, authority to do it the “right” way — whatever in their minds that may be.

The Sherman Tank has typically learned that overwhelming aggressive behavior elicits a desired response in others. Which is, of course, true when dealing with most people: Most rational individuals will capitulate when confronted by a Tank’s assault, and often against their better judgment. Oddly, this is why Sherman Tanks often make good entrepreneurs — at least at first. By shear force of contentious will they are able to push their visions into reality, and sell them on.

The problem comes when a Sherman Tank’s business begins to take on a life of it’s own. If the people in a growing enterprise, the very collective consciousness of the business, begin to view a Sherman Tank’s irrational behavior as a liability, the Tank may quickly find himself locked out of his own business.

Here are some tips for dealing with Sherman Tanks, both from Dr. Bramson’s book and from my own experience. In my opinion following this advice is good both for the sake of one’s own career (and sanity!), as well as that of the Sherman Tank him/herself.

Stand Up for Yourself

This is crucial. Without getting into fisticuffs, it is important to stand one’s ground and make your difference of opinion known and understood. Throughout the attack, in whatever form it takes, continue to reassert that your opinion differs and why. Use this to attempt to lure the Tank into a constructive discussion.

Be Consistent

The battle with some particularly bad Sherman Tanks can be monotonous. You will experience the same pattern of irrational dysfunction again and again; often in varying degrees of aggressiveness.

It is important to stand up to all affronts, from casual “digs” to outright insults. Make it clear that only polite, professional behavior will elicit a desired response.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fight Back

Though Dr. Bramson might disagree, I have found that anger, if used appropriately and strategically, can be an effective tool. If you are being unjustly attacked by Sherman Tanks, rather than defend your point of view, try returning anger to the attack itself. A snap along the lines of “What on earth warrants this kind of insulting dialog?” not only changes the topic, but forces the attacking Tank to step back, look at, and attempt to defend his or her own misbehavior.

That being said…

Keep it Personal and Discreet

More often than not, direct, rational, human interaction is all it takes to disarm a Sherman Tank. Avoid public situations where the Tank’s pride demands victory at all costs. If possible, invite him aside for a private chat. If being attacked asynchronously, such as via email, use the phone for an immediate one-on-one conversation. Make it clear how you personally feel about the attack.

Many Sherman Tanks will back down as soon as they snap out of their anger and realize that their actions do more than just elicit a response.. they hurt as well.

Keep it Out of Print

Some weaker Sherman Tanks will limit their attacks to email. Email gives them instant gratification without having to confront the possibility of face-to-face retaliation from their victims. It also makes it easy for the Tank to broadcast the battle to others.

Of course, whatever you do, do not reply in kind. There is no way to win a public email “flame war”, and no more likely way to lose to a Sherman Tank. Feeding them red hot email fodder only fuels ego-defensive anger.

Whenever possible, immediately move the battle to a private forum where it can become a personal conversation.

Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away

Finally, though this may not be possible for everyone, be prepared to walk away. Sherman Tanks rely on leverage over their victims to produce desired behavior. When you display a willingness to simply exit the relationship, this leverage disappears, and the Tank is forced to find another way to get what he wants.

Interestingly, rather than escalate the situation or change approach, the Sherman Tank will typically shift the attack to someone else. Though not ideal, this change does give you the opportunity step out of a defensive posture and take up the role of negotiator.

Although difficult, from my experience it is possible to stand up to and work productively with Sherman Tanks. Many are well meaning; just horribly misguided and dysfunctional when it comes to managing others. Start-up environments bring out the worst in them. Courage and honesty are your allies here.

Don’t be surprised if you only gain trust and respect from a Sherman Tank after you start standing up for yourself.

And if you find yourself in a situation where too much assertive honesty may actually be a bad thing, then please see Dr. Bramson’s book for excellent advice on the more subtle approaches for coping with Sherman Tanks and other difficult people.

Though you may also want to consider investing in your very own Badonkadonk.

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