“Help me manage my boss they’re driving me crazy!”
This is one of the most common leadership challenges we get faced with on a daily basis.
Jason (whose name, like others, has been changed to protect confidentiality): who loved his role as a director at a top insurance company – that is, until his boss left for another firm. His new MD, David, was reported as being critical of everyone on the team, regardless of what they individually or collectively achieved.
He was widely said to be unapproachable, regularly visibly angry and frustrated, prone to micromanaging, and unsupportive of any project that wasn’t his idea. Within a year of joining the firm he had replaced a number of Jason’s colleagues.
Jason worked through trying to win his boss’s trust and respect. He proactively asked for feedback and guidance, tried to find out what David truly wanted from him and the team, his boss’s personal goals and ambitions for the company, as well as repeatedly offering up suggestions and solutions to David’s criticisms.
But David was unresponsive. Several months in and the relationship not improving, Jason discussed the situation with HR. Very sympathetic, they however said there was nothing they could do, and that there had not been any other complaints.
Unable to improve the situation or relationship with David, Jason felt increasingly demotivated, uninspired, stressed, and all-round much less productive, happy and fulfilled than he would like in his role – which was very important to him. In the end, he decided to look for a role elsewhere.
Join the club!
Jason is, unfortunately, not alone. According to multiple studies, around half of all employees across Europe, the United States, Asia, the Middle East and Africa have quite their jobs at some point, to escape the relationship with their bosses. So this is a global issue!
Also, a lot of damage also happens before that point.
The same studies also show a clear link between an employee’s engagement (motivation and effort to achieve organisational goals) and their relationship with their boss. With research having shown that engagement is a key driver for organisational success, as well as the human cost, you can see the obvious bottom-line costs of these working relationships going wrong.
What are ‘bad’ bosses doing?
In our experience, the most common grievances include micromanaging, avoiding giving and receiving constructive feedback, visibly displays of anger and frustration, avoiding difficult conversations, not developing employees, avoiding decision-making, shifting blame, lack of empathy, and not listening to people’s views and opinions.
Quite a list – and one that would affect anyone’s productivity and fulfilment at work.
With someone who is displaying some, if not all, of these dysfunctional behaviours, your relationship with them will undoubtedly be bottom of their to-do list.
However, as a leader, managing your relationship with your boss is a critical part of your role, and is a key indicator of how effective you are. It’s easy to forget, when you’re in the thick of an unhappy relationship with your boss, but the good news is, there is quite a lot you can do to improve the situation.
How to Manage Your Boss:
1) “See them as a gift!”
We are always in relationship with people wherever we go and whatever we do, and so effectively learning how to manage them (especially the difficult ones or ones involving tricky power dynamics), is a fantastic life and leadership skill to be learning. They will undoubtedly not be the first ‘difficult’ person you have had to deal with, and they most certainly will not be the last.
As I say, when difficult working relationships come up as a topic, “ This person is a gift!”. (Admittedly the other person isn’t immediately convinced of this, but they certainly are when they’ve learnt and practiced how to manage the relationship more effectively).
Learning to effectively manage your relationship with your boss will also have you develop all aspects of your emotional intelligence as a leader. It requires you to practice and stretch into all four quadrants of EQ: self-awareness; self-management, social-awareness and relationship management – as laid out in our model below:
Check the EQ leadership formula website here.
2) Practice empathy.
AKA put yourself in their shoes. Most bad bosses are not bad people – they’re typically good people who were promoted because they were technically excellent, have never received any leadership training, and are under a lot of pressure to deliver results.
So when you’re considering how they act, it’s important, and very helpful, to find out why they’re acting that way.
Take the time to find out what is most important to your boss this year. What are their performance goals? What pressures are they under from their boss (if relevant), consider what their fears anxieties and worries are.
Research has repeatedly shown that practicing empathy can be a game changer in difficult boss-subordinate relationships, especially when managing up.
Neuroscience also shows us that it’s an effective strategy – ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain make people replicate behaviours that are being done to them. So if you actively practice being empathetic toward your boss and what’s going on for them, they are highly likely to do the same back to you.
If that feels difficult to do with someone who you currently dislike because of how they are behaving towards you, know that it will get easier the more you do it, and yes, it can be learned!
3) Ask yourself: “What’s my role in this?”
As this is a relationship it won’t always, all be on them. The above question is also something I get clients to ask themselves in these cases. The reason behind this, is that often you can’t directly change their behaviour, but what you can do is look at your part in the situation, and do something about that (which will invariably have a knock-on effect on the relationship).
Self-awareness (as highlighted above in our model), is always the first step in changing any given difficult situation or relationship. So consider, as objectively as you can, any criticisms your boss has given you. What is the 2% truth in what they say? What could you improve on or change? What skills could you develop?
Also ask colleagues for feedback – discover if there is any truth to any of your boss’s criticisms, is there anything you do need to change?
Consider what might be causing any personality clash. Does this person remind you of someone from your past? A parent, teacher, or any other type of authority figure from your past?
We often find with clients that their bosses often remind them of authority figures from their past with whom they have unresolved grievances or issues, and this can have a real influence on how they respond and behave in their relationship with them in the here and now. Old emotions or stressful events can then be triggered either by them having authority over you, or it can be down to the way they look or talk, or even how they dress.
If this is the case, once you start separating out these two people and events, you will be much more able to respond in a considered strategic way, rather than react – from a highly emotional place.
Also, If there are any colleagues who do work well with your boss, observe how they behave with them or even ask (carefully), how they do it eg: “How do you express well, any disagreements you might have with them?”, “How do you know when or when not to raise an issue with them?”
4) Talk to your boss.
If none of the above bears any fruit, try and have a conversation with your boss about the issue. Request a one-to-one meeting on performance issues and start by asking, in a positive way, from a position of seeking advice and mentoring, how you can improve your performance and the relationship eg “ How can I better help you achieve your goals?”
If they engage and offer you up some feedback and development, that will create trust and help start building your relationship. If not, the next step is to have a difficult conversation highlighting the issues, the impacts, and how you’d like to resolve the situation with them.
Working through our TRUST model to do so, you may find you are both able to resolve the issues, clear up any misunderstanding, highlight any key development issues (on both sides), and build a strong working relationship.
Know that as unpleasant and fear-inducing as having such difficult conversations may be, having them is also another key part of your role and development as a leader.
5) Go to HR
If you can’t improve things by changing your responses and behaviour, and things haven’t been able to be resolved between you, and especially if others feel the same, you can think about going to HR.
Know that in doing so you will need to make a substantial business case and will need documented evidence of your boss’s negative impact and any inappropriate behaviour. Unfortunately, in the absence of which it is possible or likely that nothing will be done, and people have been known to lose their job because of making a complaint.
That’s why for most people it’s either a last resort, or just not something they do. What they typically do instead is…
6) Move on
If after following all of the above steps, you really can’t make any change to your working relationship with your boss, then it really may be time to move on. Tempting as it may be to stick it out and live in hope that they’ll leave, the longer you stay in such a dysfunctional relationship, the more disengaged, dissatisfied and embittered you will become. This will also have knock-on effects to every other area of your life and will leave to stress, anxiety and even depression in some cases.
A better solution is to let the situation fire you up to make a change – and get a better boss. Start job hunting, sort out your CV, contact head-hunters, get interviewing.
Most importantly of all – make it a two-way process – make sure you get some one-on-one time with your potential new boss and find out what they value, what they expect, and get a picture of what it would be like to work for them.
One VP I know told me that during his interview his new boss told him, with great pride, that he often slept under his desk because he worked such long hours. Unfortunately, they took the role, and yes, the boss did expect exactly the same of everyone else.
So, check out any potential new boss, let them reveal themselves to you, show you who they are, and look out for any red flags!