More Questions and Answers About Dealing with Difficult Issues with Bosses

Dealing with Difficult Issues with Bosses

CASE Problems

Problem 2: My Boss Doesn’t Do His or Her Job Well Enough but Won’t Take Help. “My boss doesn’t do the team building and scheduling management that is her job, and she doesn’t like my direct attempts at influencing what she does. I have raised the problem with her and tried to use all that you talk about in terms of not seeing her in negative terms, and I have talked with her about how her refusal costs her and harms the department, but she is still unwilling to change. In fact, she gets very uncomfortable when I directly try to talk about these interpersonal matters.”

Answer. There are two issues here. One is that your boss has weaknesses but doesn’t appear to want help. The second is that she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Let’s deal with the latter f irst. Much of what we suggest in this book is the power of being able to directly talk about issues. When the issues can get directly raised, successful resolution is more likely because each party tends to have different, but relevant, information. Only when all the facts and feelings can be put on the table is it likely that a quality solution can be discovered.

However, an open discussion is less likely when:

  • Your boss sees you as a critic or even a rival rather than as a junior  partner. Are you raising it with the implication that she is inadequate in not being able to do this?
  • Your boss feels that you really don’t understand her world and that you aren’t speaking to her concerns.
    • There is something in your history or style that makes taking help from you uncomfortable.
    • Your boss has a heroic model of leadership, in which she has to know all the answers to avoid looking weak.
    • You are approaching your boss in a way that reflects your style but isn’t an approach she is comfortable with.

All of these are factors that can interfere with open communication and joint problem solving. But even if these aren’t in play, there are some peo- ple who can’t (or won’t) discuss work relationships directly. But all is not lost. Maybe there is a way that you can still speak to your boss’s interest in a style that allows you to be influential. The following is a real situation where the junior partner found a way to deal with this sort of challenge:

Helping My Boss (Without Her Direct Assistance)

When a North American director position opened up, I applied along with one of my peers. After several interviews and discussions, she was chosen for the position over me. I am a very outspoken person, and the first few months after I started to report to her, conversations were rare and uneasy. When I asked her about changing some of the things she avoided the question. During the reorganization that happened after her promotion, my territory and staff doubled and included some of her previous direct reports. They were surprised at the camaraderie and productivity of my team. After speaking with them, I realized that team building and communication were weaknesses of hers. This weakness became apparent in her creating scheduling conf licts for many of her direct reports (my new peer group).

Instead of just pushing back on everything, I decided to try to under- stand what pressures and challenges she was facing. An example of her lead- ership style was to send out a massive spreadsheet on Wednesday and tell

everyone to be on a six-hour conference call on Friday to discuss it. After reading “Managing Your Boss”3 and the boss chapter from Inf luence with- out Authority [first edition], I called her to discuss her request. I could tell she was bracing herself for a confrontation, but I asked what end result she needed to get from the spreadsheet. I volunteered to organize the spread- sheet using some pivot tables and send each person a small piece. They would return their pieces to me, I would compile it all, and we could then spend one hour on Friday summarizing the information. She was thrilled. She had the results she needed, and my peers and I had less work and frustration. Fabulous!

This manager f inally f igured out that his boss may have been resisting his help since he was a former peer who could be diff icult to manage. The boss proba- bly felt that she had to resist his aggressive opinions, or she would be over- whelmed by him and his expectations. When he looked at it from her point of view and realized some of the pressure she was under, he was able to offer a genuine service to her that could make her feel supported and look good to her boss and subordinates. In turn, she responded positively, and they were able to develop a good working relationship.

This approach is based on making an accurate diagnosis without being able to check out your assumptions with the other person. In your situa- tion, does your boss’s superior pressure her to appear stronger? What have you seen that would help you diagnose the resistance? And despite your ef- forts to avoid negative interpretations, is there anything in your style of approaching her that implies you don’t respect her because of her def icien- cies? Are you labeling her as f lawed in your mind, then radiating that scorn? Without an accurate diagnosis, repeated approaches to help are likely to be received no better than in the past. You need to know what she values (or fears) in order to pay in the proper currencies.

Problem 3: My Boss Is Distant and Unfriendly. “My boss is unap- proachable and negative; I think she is threatened by me. When I get recognition outside the organization ( because of my past accomplishments serving on civic task forces), she yells at me for not informing her in ad- vance of my contacts and tries to put me down. When I send her e-mails

to inform her, she never responds. She is a recent political appointment, with a great track record in her profession but no managerial experience. She is so impossible; I plan to just lay low and wait her out.”

Answer. While this is unpleasant and objectively inappropriate behavior, before you start to demonize her ( because demons aren’t human and can’t change), take a moment to look at her world. She might not have it as easy as it appears.

First, she comes into a high-visibility job without managerial experi- ence, so she probably feels under great pressure to produce. It is also likely that she is holding a heroic mind-set that says, “I should know and have the answers.” Compounding this is that she now encounters and has to super- vise a long-term employee who has a lot of the skills that she doesn’t have and has great outside contacts that she lacks. Since it is contacts that got her the job, she may worry what that means. She doesn’t know if you will be loyal or try to undermine her and talk about her managerial weaknesses to important people on the outside. Unfortunately, your boss doesn’t appear to have the confidence to openly discuss the situation. That is a level of vul- nerability that most managers won’t show—even if it is the very thing that would likely draw you to her. In addition, she is probably overloaded with work, feels alone, and is trying to do it all herself. These kinds of pressures can make anyone behave in an inconsiderate, controlling, and distant way.

But this doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do. In fact, you hold many currencies that your boss might need, including:

  • Support, understanding, and acceptance (that she is not inadequate just because she lacks the knowledge you have)
    • Loyalty and the fact that you are on her side
    • Advance information, heads-up about what is coming
    • Introductions to key people that you know
    • Your political knowledge and sensitivity
    • Ability to tip her off to important happenings in the relevant outside world, to prepare her for public contacts, and to advise her about land mines outside the organization
    • Making her look good to her boss

So how could you go about helping her? We usually advise directness because it can sort out issues more quickly and minimize misunderstand- ings. Could you take the risk of going to her off ice and saying that you want to help and you are guessing that she is in a tough spot? She is likely

to ask, “What do you mean?” Can you, with authentic concern, describe the picture of the pressures you are guessing she is under? Certainly this takes courage, but what is the worst thing that could happen—that she is nonresponsive?

Another option is just to go out of your way to pay her in some of the currencies previously listed, hoping that, over time, she will see that you are helping—not undermining—and will start to include you earlier and trust you more. In some ways, this is the harder option because it does take longer and you might run out of patience.

In fact, the real challenge in this situation is likely to be you. It sounds as if you are angry now about how you are treated. Perhaps the last thing you want to do is to help somebody who yells at you and puts you down. But if that is blocking you from either of these options, you are now aware of what is preventing this situation from improving.

Problem 5: How Do I Change the Quality of Supervision My Boss Pro- vides and Get the Development and Coaching I Want? This problem has three variations: (1) “I could be much more effective if my boss was willing to give me some coaching, but he appears to operate out of a sink-or- swim philosophy. I am concerned that if I asked him for advice, he would see it as a sign of weakness.” (2) “I’m not afraid of my boss; in fact, I like her. But I can hardly get her attention, let alone her help. She is so busy and so preoccupied that I am left to drift. And when she does pay attention, it is only to give a quick criticism. I could use a lot more coaching and direction.” (3) “My boss is all too willing to give me advice. In fact, that’s the problem; he moves from ‘helping me’ to ‘helping the hell out of me.’ I would welcome some general guidelines, but he gets into the details and won’t let go.”

Earning Your Boss’s Confidence Even When in Trouble

The case of Monica Ashley, on our web site at http://www.influencewithoutauthority

.com/monicaashley.html describes in detail the complexities of tr ying to lead a revolutionar y product development effor t. During the process, problems arise between Monica Ashley and her long-time manager, Dan Stella. As a result of her diff iculties in mobilizing suppor t—including his—and in dealing with powerful re- sisters, Dan Stella removes her as project development manager, and gives her less challenging assignments.

What could Monica Ashley have done to earn her way back into Dan Stella’s conf idence? Aside from continuing to do excellent work on the assignments she still had, she could have asked him to explain more fully what he meant when he kept telling her to slow down, how he viewed the tradeoff between slowing down to avoid arousing public opposition and possibly missing market oppor tunities, why he had concluded that it was never productive to f ight in public, what signals she sent that made him think she was on the verge of a breakdown, and so on. Because they had a good relationship of 10 years’ standing, she might even have asked him what he did with his anger and impatience when the old guard made unreasonable and irrational accusations or how he had changed as he moved up and what he was doing to make himself a more effective executive.

Genuinely listening, she would demonstrate that she is not so emotional that she cannot listen, that she has the interest to learn how to do what he had hinted she should do, that she takes seriously the need to keep learning as she advances, and that she recognizes that the game changes as you get nearer the top.

Fur thermore, if Monica Ashley could admit to Dan Stella that she had been caught up in the heat of the project, as she came to realize, that in itself would be a sign of growing maturity that would reassure him. In fact, something like that eventually happened, and she was let out of the penalty box and once again asked to take on mainstream, vital projects. She went on to a ver y successful career— not a bad comeback for someone who had plummeted so far and so visibly. You can f ind the fascinating saga at the web site.

Answer. Even though these situations are different, they have in com- mon the requirement that you f ind a way to talk directly with your boss. Second, while you are seeking coaching so you can improve, it’s always advantageous to also point out why this is in the best interest of the orga- nization (and even of your manager).

As far as the f irst scenario, the sink-or-swim issue, what stops many peo- ple from asking for help is the fear that their bosses will see them as weak,

ineffective, confused, or lacking in leadership ability. Perhaps your boss has said outright that no one should ever admit that he or she has anything to learn. Or maybe you have merely inferred this from your boss’s behavior, but believe it as gospel. While many bosses sometimes get hung up on look- ing tough, many subordinates assume that their bosses are so entangled in heroic assumptions that any sign of the subordinate’s being merely mortal is the kiss of death.

The f irst question is: Do you really know that is the boss’s orientation? You state that your boss appears to operate out of a sink-or-swim philoso- phy. Is that based on def initive evidence, or is that a conclusion drawn from one or two off hand comments? Even if you are convinced that this is your boss’s stance, you can still talk to him about this issue. But before doing so, there could be some useful diagnostic work to do to understand what might be causing his position:

  • Is he already overloaded with a wide span of control so that he could be concerned that if he starts coaching one person, he will be inun- dated with multiple requests?
    • When he took over this operation, were most of the employees pas- sive and he might be afraid that too much coaching would produce the same dependency?
    • Is sink-or-swim the approach that his boss uses with him?
    • Has he never worked in an organization where development of talent is an active part of being a manager, so he f igures if he could swim, others will?

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that you have a hunch that it’s the f irst reason. Could you say:

Ricardo, my sense is that this organization really values people who take initiative for their own development. That’s f ine with me and I have done that in these and these areas. . . . And I will continue to do that, but I wonder whether, in addition, I could get some advice from you. We are facing a lot of negative reaction to our bold new change plans. I’m not as good as I want to be in my ability to deal with people who are giving me a hard time. You seem to be good at that, and I’d like to learn from you. I know you are busy with multiple tasks, including a lot of us to manage, but would you be willing to talk about my encounter with Ulrich? I didn’t defend the department the way I wanted to. Could we discuss that for 15 minutes?

What’s the worst that could happen? Ricardo could say, “Figure it out on your own.” And you’d smile and say, “Will do.” But the odds are that he will agree, and if you don’t overdo these requests, they could probably be repeated for special occasions. And if your boss seems to value your de- velopment, maybe that could later lead into a lengthier discussion of areas he is willing to coach in and areas he thinks you should do on your own.

Even with tough-as-nails bosses, it may be possible to ask for help in a way that is in itself strong. You can demand to know how you can be an outstanding performer, making your request from a posture of being strong enough to expect tough standards. “I need to know in order to deliver” is not the plea of a wimp. This approach can appeal even to a macho boss and change the assumption of weakness into an impression of strength.

In the second scenario, the boss is too busy, analyze whether some of the activities that are consuming her time are less important and/or ones that you think you could accomplish. Would it then be possible to go to her and say:

Ellen, you really seem to be juggling a lot of balls in the air at the same time. I could be more effective if I could get some coaching, but I realize that all of these activities don’t give you any extra time. If I took on some of these like X and Y, would that free enough time for you to occasionally give me some advice on how I could improve? These don’t have to be lengthy sessions. For example, in the meeting we had yesterday with cost accounting, I could have used just 10 extra minutes afterward to hear how I could better have handled what seemed like their petty requests.

If she evades the issue, you don’t have to give up. You can ask if the sub- ject makes her uncomfortable or if there is a better way to capture her in- sights. You can stress how much better you think you can do for the department if you learn to be more effective at the particular skill in ques- tion. You can offer to make an appointment to discuss it at a later time that would be more convenient. One rebuff does not have to end the possibilities.

In the third scenario, the boss over helps, it’s the opposite problem: Your boss is only too ready to help and gets too involved. What could be a valu- able resource, since any boss probably knows a thing or two, becomes an enormous burden. How can you capture the best of what your boss has to offer without being obligated to take all the advice and “guidance” that comes your way?

The key, once again, is to show your boss that too much “help” hurts his own interests. Being swamped with more advice than you want reduces the challenge in your job and thus reduces your ownership of the problems and your responsibility for solving them. If your boss rides the bike for you

instead of just giving you instructions, support, and a gentle push, you’ll soon have to call him every time you want to get anywhere.

Even worse, if you feel stif led by this experience, you might not ask for help the next time you need it to preserve your latitude. Ask your boss:

Do you mean to push me into avoiding asking for help? If not, if you still want me to use my judgment about when to get you involved in tough is- sues, then you need to give me breathing room. I want to be a responsi- ble partner to you, but when you start to take over for me, I begin to back away. I don’t want to go passive and let you do everything, and I can’t be- lieve that’s what you want. You don’t want to make it tempting to cut you out, do you?

At the least, these kinds of questions ought to prompt a good discus- sion about what your boss does want and what you require to be as use- ful as possible.

In short, if you think of yourself as a partner, you can take the initiative to admit you want help, ask for something specif ic that is reasonably recent, and respond with interest rather than defensiveness. These all smooth the way for your boss to give you what you want.

All these steps comprise an attempt to redef ine the nature of the tradi- tional boss-subordinate contract. Where the exchange used to be, “I’ll do what you say if you’ll take care of me,” it becomes something more like, “I want to perform well, which will be helpful to you, but to do it we both have to take responsibility for helping me learn. I’m willing to do my share; now, will you join me?”

Most managers now realize that continuous learning has become a way of life in organizations; the subordinates who recognize this first and request help to grow are the most likely to be favorably received. They will also achieve the most. Your boss might be the exception, but the risk of failure to try to alter the relationship is at least as great as the risk of continuing to try to outguess your boss and thereby stay out of trouble.