How to deal with a tyrannical new Captain

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Q: Troy, Chief Officer, 32:

“Our last Captain had to leave suddenly for personal reasons, and now we have a new Captain who is bossing us all about like we’ve never worked on a boat before. He’s trying to change absolutely everything, as if he can just walk in and make this boat exactly like his last one. I can tell from things he’s said he wants to bring some of his old crew onboard, so we’re all just waiting to get the sack and not knowing if we should jump before we’re pushed. We love our owners and we’re a really tight crew – but in 3 weeks he’s totally destroyed any morale onboard. He’s got no social skills and a massive ego – he seems to think he can throw his weight around and we’re all going to just take it. The crew are literally on the point of a mutiny – what can we do, should we all just quit? We can’t talk to management because they are the ones who hired him! The thing is it’s a great yacht and we don’t want to leave our owners in the lurch, or have it look bad on us for leaving.”

A: The Crew Coach:

Thank you for your raw honesty. You’re the perfect example of how most crew feel when everything changes dramatically onboard and they feel they have no control over their lives. It certainly sounds like things are going pretty badly so far. But it also sounds like you’ve got a good crew and that it’s a boat you feel strongly about and want to stay on. Given that, you’re going to need to take some steps to turn this situation around.

I’ve actually written about this captaincy change scenario before, but from a new captain’s perspective when he took over a yacht and felt resistance from the crew. (It’s probably worth having a read of that article too so that you can perhaps get a window into his perspective of this situation.)

Firstly, remember the only person whose behaviour you can truly control in this scenario is your own, although you are in a leadership role so other people are going to be looking to your behaviour as well. This is an important opportunity to show your leadership skills and send a very good example to the rest of the crew by being calm and strategic about your words and actions.

One thing you can do is analyse your strong reactions to this situation. That’s not to say that he’s right about the way he’s going about things, but it’s very possible that your fear of things changing and initial dislike of him is clouding your judgement a little. Before you say ‘no I’m not, the guy’s a total (bleep), hear me out.

Having a strong negative reaction to change like this is very natural, and almost all of us let our emotions get in the way of a clear and calm assessment of our changing situation. For example, are you jumping on every little thing he says and does as proof that he’s a terrible person? If he even mentions his old crew, are you taking that as irrefutable evidence that he wants to replace you all? Or if he gets something wrong, do you jump on that as proof that he’s not right for the job?

Science calls this ‘confirmation bias’; basically a fancy term for when we selectively choose information that supports or proves (to us) what we already believe to be true. We do it all the time, for example when we watch an opposing political party on television, or speak to someone we don’t like.

What you can do

Try to stop and assess: would you be so suspicious or hard on someone that you liked? Would similar behaviour from the last captain have provoked such a strong reaction from you? If you look at it very objectively you might find you are being very hard on him. Perhaps you can give the situation some time to calm down, particularly as it sounds like tensions are running high. Often changeover conflict sorts itself out over a couple of months.

Keep in mind that some of his behaviour may be stemming from insecurity on his part – he might well feel like he’s in a hostile situation with a crew that doesn’t like him (which from what you say is fairly true at the moment!). As such, he may be trying to assert his authority in the only way he knows how.

It may help to sit down with him and call for a ‘clean slate’. Explain it’s been tough for you to have everything changing at this point in the season, and that you’d like to create a positive working relationship going forward. This may surprise you, but many of the most solid working relationships are formed after a conflict situation is resolved.

If you are concerned that he wants to replace the crew, use this private chat with him to explain that everyone’s feeling a bit of job insecurity, and that you’d like to know his intentions. Yes, he may not tell the truth, but you can get an idea of his reaction, and it also lets him know that you’re all a bit stressed and he might need to soften his approach with all of you. Ultimately Captains need their Chief Officer as their ally so he would be silly to ignore your feedback.

You say the Management company hired him but presumably the owners must have had some say in it – and as you do like them, you have to trust their judgement, at least for now until things calm down. Perhaps they have made a mistake in hiring this captain, but if so, that’s up to them to figure out and you won’t win any favours by pointing it out to them. You can be fairly sure the management will have a good eye on what’s happening onboard during this changeover too and they won’t want to damage their relationship with the owner by having the wrong Captain in place. You might feel like you’re the only one seeing clearly, but give everyone else a bit of credit too.

Finally, try and bide your time. As you say, the season is underway now, so nothing will be gained by storming off and leaving yourself high and dry at this point. If you get to the end of the season and are still having difficulties with his Captaincy, then perhaps that boat has changed for good and you’ll find a more suitable one elsewhere. But there’s also an excellent chance that by then you will have created a respectful working relationship with the person you currently see as your enemy, and you may well have learnt some things from him too.

Every cloud has a silver lining – this situation is no doubt causing you to step up more in your leadership and reinforcing your bond with the rest of the crew, which in itself is no bad thing – as long as you are not using your position to influence the crew against the Captain. Be their confidante, listen and support, but try to retain the utmost integrity and professionalism and you will come through this situation in the best possible light.

Give turning this situation around your best effort, and then you can hold your head high no matter what happens. See this as a grow-itunity, or challenge to rise to, rather than a scenario where you are powerless, and some positives might well come out of this that you weren’t expecting.

Good luck and I’d love to know where you are in 3 months’ time.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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