Ann was upset with her boss. During a leadership program I was conducting she complained that he scheduled team meetings every Friday at 5pm. Oh, I said, 5pm on a Friday does sound like an unproductive time to meet.
When I asked what her boss said when she confronted him, Ann responded that it was impossible to do that because he doesn’t like to be challenged. She even got angry with me when I said it wasn’t impossible to confront him. Rather, I said, she simply didn’t want to live with the consequences of challenging him, despite knowing it was the right thing to do. Ann sulked the rest of the afternoon. By the way, Ann is a vice president of her company.
Henry, a senior level client at another company, told me recently that his boss was consistently 20 minutes late to project meetings. Worse, he said, nothing got done in those 20 minutes because his boss insisted on being involved in every detail of the project.
When I said this seemed ridiculous and costly, Henry piled on with other heated comments about his boss. And like Ann, when I asked why he accepted this state of affairs, Henry said he couldn’t confront his boss because “she would never change.”
A self-defeating cycle
It is amazing that so many middle and senior level managers feel unable to discuss with their bosses the things that bother them. It’s bad enough that the companies employing these executives frequently promote value statements including ‘be courageous,’ ‘empower yourself,’ ‘be bold and fearless,’ and other similar encouragements.
But there is a bigger problem. When we don’t do what we know in our hearts is the right thing to do, a cascade of awful consequences results. Described perfectly in the book Leadership and Self-Deception (published by the Arbinger Institute), the predictable sequence looks like this:
You do something that annoys me. I wait for you to change but you do not. Over time I get more annoyed. I vent to others about your bad habit but not to you. Eventually I get angrier but still fail to act. And here’s the rub: Over time, I feel like a victim of your behavior, rather than an enabler of that very same behavior. It’s hard to hold negative judgments about myself, so I project those bad feelings on to you in the form of blame.
This pernicious cycle is perfectly designed to off-load responsibility to other people, who may or may not know they are doing something annoying. And by the way, we all do annoying things (except me, of course).
Regaining a sense of control
While this phenomenon exists in plenty of relationships, it is most acute in boss-subordinate relationships, where both parties accept an authority imbalance. And the paradoxes are clear: the higher you go in an organization, the less feedback you get (and the more you need it!). On the other side, when you withhold difficult feedback from your boss you are likely to become less engaged and less productive, as our examples above illustrate.
It’s hard for many of us to ‘speak our truth to power.’ But if your boss has a pattern of behavior that impacts morale or productivity, here are some things you might consider:
• First, check your intention. For example, your job is not to change your boss’s behavior; that is their job. Your role is to provide the information that might help your boss change their behavior if they choose to do so.
• Second, gather your courage. Most managers think they have less power than they really have. Unless you are a miserable wretch of an employee, few bosses want to get rid of you for the simple reason that it’s hard to get good talent. Its helpful to realize you have more juice than you think.
• Third, be clear in your message. For instance, Henry might say to his boss, “Over the past five project meetings you were 20 minutes late. We lost productive time, which has a cost, and has left me frustrated, which affects my morale. I need us to discuss how this situation can change so it works for all of us.” It is important to link the behavior to a negative impact, particularly in business costs.
• Finally, hold forgiveness in your heart. You may have allowed the situation to fester to the point where it is difficult to believe your boss can change. And you may be correct. But consider that our annoying habits are often based on us being unaware of the impact of our behavior on others, or being rewarded over time for behavior that is no longer functional.
Even if you don’t get the results you seek, by constructively confronting your boss you will feel a greater sense of control, which is most likely what your boss’s behavior has threatened in the first place. And until we confront that which bothers us, we have only ourselves to blame.