In over sixteen years of coaching here is a conversation I’ve never had with a senior leader:
“You know Nancy, I’m really a SOB. Can you please work with my direct and teach them to put up with me?”
And here is the conversation I almost always have with the direct:
“My boss is a real problem. I don’t get clear direction. He or she doesn’t respond, doesn’t give actionable feedback, cancels our meetings, manages up without developing me or the team. I can’t succeed under this person.”
When I’m coaching someone very often the boss is, whether they know it or not (usually not), a huge contributing factor. And if you are being coached, hopefully that’s a confidential safe harbor where you can be guided through the politics and difficulties of dealing with a tough manager.
But let’s assume you don’t have a coach. How do you know what to do? Whom should you talk to (HINT: Not your colleagues). And more importantly, what are the wisest things not to do? And how do you know when it’s time to give up and look elsewhere?
Here are three time tested approaches:
I. The Classic Approach
HBR’s article “Managing Your Boss” stresses understanding your boss and mirroring his or her communication style. If your boss prefers email, use email. If your boss speaks in bullet points, speak in bullet points. Know your boss’ goals, observe your boss’s behavior, know the types of questions asked and the work style used. Your boss will feel more comfortable and confident with you,and tensions will diminish
II. The Checklist
Forbes takes a different approach, giving you 12 “easy” ways to manage your boss. Of course none of them are really easy – communicate clearly, provide solutions, be committed. These are all standard rules of the road if you want to be successful. But it’s a fair call out to say focus on eliminating the irritants to the boss and you’ll be a happier camper.
III. The Coaching Approach
If I were working with you we would begin with questions – what can you learn from this boss? What does this boss value? What are the hot buttons? What are the differences in priorities? What do you need that you aren’t getting? What have you done to resolve that? What are you willing to do?
We might talk about your expectations: are they realistic given the organization, the culture, the current state of the business and this particular boss’s personality? Who does manage the boss well? Are there things that person does that you could do too? What have you tried that has worked? And what haven’t your tried yet?
Above all, I would make sure that your pride and judgement aren’t getting in the way. And if they’re not, then it’s time to start another conversation about leaving or finding a different boss. But before doing so be sure that you’ve tried to shift your style – because even small shifts in behavior can elicit a radically different response in others.