Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bad bosses

I just got through reading another one of those "bad bosses" articles that seem to crop up regularly - and the nearly 60 comments that followed, most with horror stories of their own bosses.

So let me ask you a rhetorical question: where do all these bad bosses come from? Is there a subculture of mean people that wakes up every morning dreaming of ways to make people feel stupid?

Here is my own view: I think it's a little like drivers and pedestrians. When you are behind the wheel of your car, you get frustrated by all these slow, careless pedestrians that dither in front of your car while you are driving. And then you step out of your car, and get frustrated by all the thoughtless drivers who don't slow down and whiz by two feet from you. And then you step back in your car and the pedestrians suddenly get stupider again.

Over my own three-decade-plus career, I have had just about every shade of boss imaginable. More important, for much of this career I have been both an employee and a boss at the same time. If I could sum up many of those years into one neat package, the same driver-pedestrian dynamic applies. Bosses often frustrate employees and employees often frustrate bosses.

But here is what is even more important. Most of the time I respected my bosses, and was respected in turn by my employees. Was I lucky? Perhaps so, reading some of these horror stories. But I also think that how you communicate has a lot to do with how these relationships turn out.

You see, most of these "bad bosses" articles recommend self-defense and subterfuge, with advice ranging from staying under the radar to complaining to the boss's superiors. And since every action usually has an equal and opposite reaction, these approaches are often about as effective as stepping on the boss's foot. Taking it a step further, it was telling that the vast majority of people posting comments had quit, been fired, or worked in a state of ceaseless warfare.

There is only one effective way to *really* deal with bad bosses, and it feels about as natural as drinking pickle juice. First, you have to acknowledge their agenda. Whether they are insecure, demanding, have a short temper, or are pickier than thou, you have to acknowledge what they want and need. Second, you have validate what they say every time they open their mouth. Listen carefully: I did NOT say agree with or kiss up to them. I mean let them know that you understand how they see the world. Finally, tell them what you want in a way that benefits both of you. Compare these two approaches:

Not so good:
Peter Picky: This report is missing a comma! I keep telling you that I want perfect English on these reports!
You: Look, it isn't physically possible to have no typos on a 100 page report. You are always getting in my face!

Will Mr. Picky apologize profusely and be more accommodating forthwith? I didn't think so. So now try it my way:

Peter Picky: This report is missing a comma! I keep telling you that I want perfect English on these reports!
You: I respect that you have high standards for what goes out under our name. I'd like to learn what went wrong here.
Peter Picky: We *always* use the serial comma here - this line should read, "Lawrence Welk said, 'And a one, and a two, and a three."
You: That makes sense. And I certainly want to be a team with you on these reports. I also don't want to live in fear of constant criticism, because if anything that makes me even more mistake-prone. What could we do to work together better from here?

Wasn't that easy? You're right, it wasn't. You are probably biting your lip so hard there are teeth marks in it. But if you get in the habit of validating every single thing your boss says while sticking up for yourself, I am betting you will get a lot more of what you want and a lot more respect.

Don't just take my word for it. Baseball manager Joe Torre, a perennial champion who lasted more than a decade working for George Steinbrenner, an owner who previously went through managers like Henry VIII went through wives, wrote about a similar dynamic in his book Ground Rules for Winners. And I take the mechanics of difficult conversations like these and practically beat them to death with a stick in my new book How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, now available for pre-order. Try taking a fresh look at how you talk with tough bosses, and see what happens!

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