How to Communicate with a Difficult Boss


“My vice-president is hard to work with,” a manager said to me.

“Do others feel the same way?” I asked.

“Yes, there is general frustration.”

“Exactly, what does the vice president do that causes stress?”

“His meetings last way too long and we still do not agree on what we need to do. He sometimes gives different messages to our staff members than to us.  When someone brings up an issue, he listens.  Then he joins others in identifying why it is an issue, but we do not identify a solution.”

When experiencing noisome relations with someone (including your boss), it is necessary to communicate honestly with the person.  But communication with another about a troubling behavior is akin to walking on tacks.

Pick one, and only one, issue and avoid any mention of what you think the boss may be doing wrong.  Rather, begin with something like, “I think we may be missing some opportunities here.  During our meetings, how about I list the options being discussed?  At some point, I can summarize the ideas and see if we can get support for one of them.”

Don’t expect an immediate miracle turnaround.  Be patient, stay the course, and look for small improvements.

 

Don’t Make the Same Mistake Twice!


At a crucial point in the game, the coach yelled, “Take care of the ball!  We’ve had two fumbles already.  We don’t need another one.”  All players focus on “don’t fumble” and too often there is a fumble or another mistake.

Managers see repeated mistakes as something akin to the pneumonic plague and admonish the team with, “We are supposed to learn from our mistakes–not keep making them!”

To reduce repeated mistakes, consider three approaches.

One, shine the spotlight brightly on successes, no matter how small.  Start catching employees doing things right.  Cheer all improvements.  Managers who focus strongly on mistakes, like coaches who prioritize fumble avoidance, create tense environments which actually contribute to error-making.

Two, require checklists whenever appropriate.  Pilots who have successfully performed hundreds of take-offs and landings still complete checklists.  Why?  Checklists are proven devices for reducing mistakes.

Three, consider removing an employee from a task if, after training and experience, the employee continues making dumb mistakes.  All tasks, no matter how simple, require some degree of talent to be performed well.  Remember Shaquille O’Neil, after untold hours of practice, could not improve his free-throw shooting.

You Behavior at Holiday Parties Counts


“I guess I should not have had that last drink,” Fred commented.  “But it was a party.  We were having a good time.  The vice president was in worse shape than I was.  I don’t think anyone will hold it against me.”

At the annual holiday party, Fred a front-line manager, had apparently told a couple of off-color jokes and sang a karaoke tune loudly and badly.  And that was after he spilled his food dish into the lap of one of his staff member’s spouses.

Like it or not, you are the leader twenty-four-seven.  Your behavior off-the-job, on the weekend, at the grocery store or during annual celebrations impacts your leadership.

Whenever and wherever you make a fool of yourself, descriptions of the incident will get back to your workplace; it may even be on YouTube.  And you can bet that all unprofessional behaviors will negatively impact your leadership effectiveness.

Do attend your company events and use the experience to enhance your leadership.  Initiate greetings with your staff and family members.  Make it a point to say something nice.  Visit with people from other departments.  Express your appreciation for their contributions.  Ask others about their personal interests.  Minimize the alcohol.

 

Is It Better to “Think” or “Act” When Problems Arise?


Adrian and Stephanie approach problems differently.

“First, I like to determine the root cause of the problem,” Adrian said.  “Then, I like to brainstorm alternatives, evaluate them and make a plan. During execution, I may adjust the plan.”

Stephanie said, “When a process erupts, I quickly put a patch on it.  If my first impulse fails, I try something else.  I just continue experimenting until a solution finds me.”

Adrian, by moving logically from one stage to the next, exercises linear thinking.   Stephanie’s approach is less logical and more iterative.  Which is better?

Tom Wujec gave many groups an assignment to build a tower out of spaghetti and tape to support a marshmallow.

Not surprisingly, the best performing teams in Wujec’s experiments were architects and engineers.  However, kindergartners consistently outperformed business school students.

Business students, relying on linear thinking, spent a lot of time methodically planning and assigning team member responsibilities.  When the plan failed during execution, they went back to the drawing board to regroup and revise.

Kindergartners simply began trying different actions without planning (an iterative approach). When an action failed, they quickly tried another.  Their “try it and fix it” approach produced a better product in less time.

 

Are You Teaching Your Employees to Fad Surf?


Prior to an all-hands meeting, an employee commented sarcastically to a peer, “What’s it going to be this time?”

“Whatever it is,” the peer responded, “the vice president will assure us that it will improve sales, cut costs and cure cancer.”

Rumors of a new program launch had been racing through departments like a grass fire in a wind storm.

Perhaps the employees should not have been so skeptical.  But they clearly remembered several previous aborted improvement efforts.

“Higher-ups” often are not fully aware of the extra work burden created by the latest catholicon.    And when managers are prone to latch on to the new “whatever,” employees quickly engage in what Professor Robert Sutton calls “fad surfing.”  That is, employees make minimum commitments to show cooperation but do not engage enough to ensure eye-popping success.

Program failures prompt managers to search for the next lever; starting a cycle of: (1) roll out a new program with great fanfare, (2) experience disappointing results, (3) regroup and center on another, even better, remedy.

When a new program flounders, management should not be so quick to search for lightening in another bottle.  A refocus on the fundamentals—hiring, training, supervision, recognition—might be the better cure.

 

Accept This Fact: Career Success is Very Dependent Upon Your Boss


Which is more accurate?

  1. My boss is more dependent on me.
  2. I am more dependent on my boss.

About seventy percent of participants in my workshops say, “My boss depends more on me than I do on him (her).”  This view, I think, may over state the role of the subordinate in the relationship.

Of course, higher-level managers depend on subordinates to fulfill their responsibilities.  And bosses, in some cases, may not even be able to perform their subordinates’ tasks.  Still, the boss has a lot of influence—much more than most of us would like to think.

Recall a time when you worked for a bad boss.  No doubt, you experienced a lot of frustration.  Compare that to an experience with a good boss.  Job satisfaction and career success are much more likely when working for good bosses.  Face it, you are very dependent upon your boss for a good work life.

Good bosses mentor and help staff members grow.  Bad bosses stress and frustrate all.  When considering a position, be sure to evaluate the boss carefully.  If you are frustrated at work, the boss still gets a pay check; you may get an ulcer.