Bad Boss Boogie

My colleague and I were sat at the back of the room which had around 30 others from our department sat in rows. HE had summoned a meeting at short notice and it was a 'three line whip', missing it was not an option. When HE opened the meeting with the phrase 'Chatham house rules apply' we knew it was going to be dire. Sure enough the next 10 minutes involved him making comments that no boss should make, sexist, demotivating and most of all, factually incorrect. But  HE was our boss - what could we do?

When I coach programme and project managers I find at some point the issue of managing a difficult boss, or SRO, or Programme Director arises. Often these are the people with overall accountability for project success, however, if their behaviour is acting as a barrier to success what can you do? 

Well managing upwards isn’t necessarily going to be easy but it is not impossible.

Think of it as a bit of a dance in which there are 5 key steps which you can repeat (and a 6th if they stomp on your toes).

1.    The first step is to ‘assume positive intent!’. This means that whatever the impact of their behaviour on you or others, the chances are they did not come into work to deliberately sabotage the project, after all the brown stuff lands right back on them if they do. So whatever is behind their behaviour, the chances are they feel it is ‘the right thing to do’. Unless of course they are suffering from fear, stress, pressures that they have not shared with you and so on which I will deal with in a moment. So this leads to step two…

2.    Step two is to take a leaf out of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits and ‘seek first to understand’. To do this effectively you need to park your own emotions (appearing frustrated and adversarial will not help). This means entering into a discussion (not a confrontation), and explain what you are seeing, the impact on you or others. Make it clear that you want to understand and to resolve any problems they are encountering and crucially make things easier for them. Crucially, your approach should be to avoid any further harm to your working relationship and to seek to improve mutual understanding and respect by the end of the discussion.

3.    Step three, ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers. Ask questions which ensure your boss feels supported and you are putting their interests at the centre of the discussion. This is where you can probe to identify if your boss is facing pressures you are unaware or is restricted in what they can share. The aim is to help them explain what the problems are.

  • Let’s review the challenges facing our project/work area right now, have these shifted?
  • Bearing in mind the information you have, do you think we are focusing on the right priorities?
  • Have the activities of the team or I caused you any particular problems recently which we may not have been aware of?
  • Is there anything coming over the horizon which we need to be aware of?

4.    Step four, is about how you react to step three. You or the team may come in for some criticism, yes this hurts, yes this may seem unjust and yes your first reaction may be to want to defend your actions. Park these emotions, remember you want to improve the relationship. The FIRST response should be to genuinely thank your boss for the feedback, now you have some information you can work with, this is a step forward. If you can discuss the feedback in a constructive and non-defensive manner it will increase the sense of partnership and reduce the feeling of being ‘punished’. You can now work together to resolve these issues. Which brings us back to a few more potential questions…

  • What can we do to rectify this and ensure it doesn’t recur?
  • How can I be of most help to you right now?
  • What else could we be doing more of/differently/better?

5.    Step five can only follow the other four steps. This is the second part of the Stephen Covey habit,  ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’.  This is not about offering excuses to counter any criticism, it is about sharing perspectives. Having sought to understand the world from your boss’s perspective, now help them to understand yours. To be successful here it is important to remind yourself that people genuinely want to help others, therefore it is going to be more productive to phrase things requests for help...

  • There are a couple of things you could do which would also help me, can I share them with you?
  • I have found this area a particular challenge, I think you may be able to help me by..

Explain what the issues you face are and why it is important you deal with them and then ask what they would need to be able to help you in this way? Remember, support, inform, collaborate and seek to reduce their exposure to risk. If you are genuinely seeking to make their work easier they will do the same for you.

Step 6 – Only invoke if steps 1 to 5 fail.  The chances are that an open and non-combative discussion will lead to improvements. However, occasionally you may actually find you have the boss from hell. This can be a source of immense stress and if left unchecked can lead to physical illness as well.   

It may be helpful talk to peers who also work for this person to see if they are experiencing the same problems and if they have any coping mechanisms. Do not say anything that you would be uncomfortable with if it gets back to the boss. Wider feedback from peers may also highlight areas in your own behaviour which you can work on to improve things.

Abusive, bullying and unreasonable behaviour are not acceptable from anyone, boss or not. If this is the circumstances you find yourself in then talk to your HR adviser about the options open you. This may include a formal complaint being raised. It is therefore crucial that you have undertaken steps one to five before going down this path.

Very occasionally the organisational culture means that the approach of leaders, whilst not overtly abusive, can be stressful, especially if it goes against your own values. If this is the case then it is probably time to start job hunting.

Hopefully, if you practice this dance you will form a constructive relationship with your boss and boogie on to success!