Stay Off the Ice

A training room can be a sociological window. I learn a lot when I listen to the participants. Often what I learn is about the gap between their skills and the needs of the job. My task is to make that gap a little less, and sometimes, try to collapse it entirely.

The last few weeks I have gotten two versions of reality that may very well BOTH be true.

 A: The boss isn’t a very good boss.

B: The employee thinks they could advise them about how to be a better boss.

I can’t think of a more combustible combination!

I know there are good and great bosses out there, though few people come to me about them.  Some of the managers that I work with tell me they are good bosses. I listen to what they tell me that they do and say. I don’t get a chance to talk to their employees about how their behavior is perceived or received.

What I get to hear about are the challenging bosses: The bosses that close themselves off in their office and work. Employees are an interruption.  The bullies, who yell, scream, throw things, insult people, demean them – and then storm off.  The managers who attend marathons of meetings, one after the other – employees can only guess at when they might cross their paths.  The rigid bosses, so-laid-back-they-seem unconscious bosses, retired-on-the-job bosses, and bosses who don’t seem to know a lot – those are the bosses I hear about.

Well-meaning employees who think that sharing their observations about how their boss can better manage them are surprised when these same bosses don’t take unrequested feedback well. I can tell you that this is often the case with unsolicited feedback.  And when you give unwanted feedback to your boss, you are going out onto thin ice. AND to the ears of the unskilled and undisciplined boss, it’s like jumping up and down on this ice!

So my suggestion for employees with bad bosses is to stop going out on thin ice!

If you have a boss that lacks good interpersonal and management skills, don’t suggest ways that they can manage you more effectively. You are not their boss so you’re not technically responsible for their development. You are not an organizational peer so it won’t be perceived as a collegial conversation about management challenges. (You would have to share them for that to happen.) Sadly, in spite of your best efforts, organizational dynamics and structure trump your desire almost every time.

Instead, ask the boss for specifics about what they want to see. If you are unclear about how, dive into the details. Then DO it. Departmental and organizational success that reflects well on your boss is the best way to create some healthy breathing space.  It is unlikely that you will be instrumental in significantly altering the boss’s management ‘style.’  

If you like the job, the goal may be to find safe harbor where you can do your job. If you are hoping for less interaction with your boss, you may be able to obtain that by getting really good at your job in your boss’s estimation so they don’t need to interface with you so much.

Some bosses CAN get better. They have to want to be a better, more skilled boss.   They would need a boss who in invested in their development and closely manages through performance management or training follow-up.  An external consultant providing one-on-one guided execution might prove useful.

Employees may only be able to get a message through about the need for improvement by leaving.

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