When Your Boss Has All the Answers … And Thinks You Don’t

Lately, I’ve been reminded of an insightful observation from none other than the comic genius, George Carlin:

“Ever notice how anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”

Yes. Yes, I do. I notice it all the time. But I digress already … back to leadership.

The truth that Mr. Carlin is pointing to is this: We all, occasionally, judge someone who does  One-way-sign-FREE IMAGESsomething differently than how we ourselves do it as slightly inept in some way. Let’s face it, we like the way we do things … that’s why we typically do things the same way again and again.

It doesn’t actually make us right, or smarter, or better. Even though we like to think it does. And sometimes, that thinking gets the better of us and we charge into fixing or advice dispensing to those around us. It feels good to believe we have the solutions.

Most people have the self-awareness and the ability to self-manage that let-me-jump-in-and-save-you-from-disaster tendency. There are those, however, (and I’m pretty sure we all know someone who falls into this category) who think and act this way more than just sometimes. There are those for whom this “you’re doing it wrong and I’m going to tell you how to do it right” tact is a default modus operandi.

It’s tough enough to deal with this when it’s coming from a family member, friend or peer, but what if that person is your boss?

Like most challenges in life, there are a myriad of solutions to consider here. Two primary options come to mind and if you’re facing this type of manager, perhaps one of these or a combination will be of support: an Indirect Approach and a Direct Approach.

 

With an INDIRECT APPROACH, you engage your boss early on, proactively. Solicit her experiences, recommendations and ideas. Look for opportunities to blend them with your own. Set the expectation that your strategies won’t be a replica of her advice – individual circumstances are bound to be different and call for somewhat different solutions, yet you will plan to incorporate the lessons she shares. The more openly and consistently you engage her up front, the less likely she may be to correct you down the road.

Co-creating solutions communicates your respect for her view and allows you to demonstrate your own critical thinking skills and judgment. It can be a win-win.

Note: The Indirect Approach is devoid of manipulation. It demands that you are genuinely open to her perspective and to learning from her. Even if her style is one that turns you off, her knowledge could be quite valuable. If you fake it to placate her, you become the politician and your lack of authenticity will show.

If you can’t get to a head space that enables you to hold genuine regard for her ideas, this approach is not for you. There may be a larger “fit” question you need to answer.

And if you’ve already tried this tact and are still being issued directives or made to feel inferior or incompetent, read on …

 

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With the DIRECT APPROACH, you’re going straight to the source and laying your cards on the table to negotiate the parameters of your roles … with candor, diplomacy and confidence.

The Direct Approach is most successful when deployed as soon as possible after your boss crosses that line into My-Way-Or-The-Highway territory.

If you’re new in the role, you can address it with something like, “Perhaps we need to revisit expectations. I thought this type of decision / project / negotiation was within my scope of decision-making, but you seem to have a different understanding. How do you see us working together on efforts like this?”  From there, you can redefine your dynamics before they spin out of control.

If it’s a shift in your manager’s behavior, then you can address it with a discreet 1:1 follow-up, “Bob, can we talk? Laying out a directive as you just did in that meeting is a real departure. Normally, you provide perspective and enable me and the team to determine the way forward. Is there something we need to talk about?

You’re diplomatically putting it on his radar that however he manhandled the conversation or usurped your authority doesn’t sit well and you’re creating an immediate opportunity to re-set expectations.

Tone is critical here. Check your intentions before you start this conversation to ensure you’re coming from a place of curiosity and desired partnership, not from accusation or a wounded ego.

It can be more challenging if you’ve already taken the Direct Approach, yet made no progress, or when you’ve turned a blind eye and allowed the pattern of behavior to be entrenched over time. But it may still be workable.

Here’s a game plan to consider:

— Schedule a 1:1 Check-In – Tell your boss in advance that you need to discuss the dynamics of your relationship and block sufficient time. Put nothing on the agenda save for this topic.

— State your Intent – This isn’t a conversation about a single project or single occurrence of the undesirable behavior. It’s a discussion about your relationship and the expectations for executing the responsibilities of your role. I’d like to discuss our dynamics in terms of my scope … it seems like we may be operating from different expectations about the accountabilities of my role. My goal is that we operate in partnership.

— Bullet the Facts – Present your observations of the dynamics of your relationship and stick to the facts. Define the behavior: You’ve overridden each of my decisions in our last three conversations and criticized or second-guessed my handling of personnel issues lately. We’ve always had a good give-and-take dialogue, so this feels like a big shift from how we typically operate.

— Invite Discussion – Solicit your boss’ experience of the relationship, your performance and how to work effectively together going forward. Perhaps your manager has noticed a change in your ability or judgment and has his own reasons for jumping in. You’ll need to keep an open mind that you might not be meeting his expectations and be prepared to listen to his response.   I want you to have confidence in me and trust my judgment and decisions, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. What are your observations of my performance? What’s working or not working for you? How can we partner more effectively so you can trust me to do my job?

— Set Expectations – Once you’ve gotten the issues on the table, it’s time to align on the way forward. Clarify your own expectations in advance of this discussion. How do you want your roles and responsibilities to connect and what’s realistic to expect in terms of overlap? What are your non-negotiables going into the talk? What obligations, interests and goals does your boss need to meet? Recap your agreements and commitments, then set a follow-up timeline to assess how your relationship is evolving.

These are not tippy-toe, soft-shoe discussions, but they also don’t have to be adversarial conflicts. They will often be uncomfortable. You may even want to state at the outset that this is an awkward conversation for you – this can serve as a release valve for some of the stress you may feel going into the conversation. It can also provide an opening for your manager to acknowledge their own discomfort with such a candid relationship talk.

Remember that you are not confronting the person; you are confronting a dynamic … one that is ineffective for both of you and for the business. Keeping that in mind can prevent you from making your boss the enemy and can guide you through the conversation – squarely focused on the behavior you want to shift and the relationship you intend to create.

 

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WHAT ABOUT THE TOXIC ONES?

There are those who, no matter your approach, expertise, track record, or credibility, will believe they know better. They will cling to their need to be right. They will continue to demand things be done their way. And they will ultimately undermine the organization they lead.

These are the toxic ones.

The majority of the time, their need to control has little to do with you, your performance or your potential. There is something within them that drives this behavior. It isn’t personal, but it sure feels like it every time.

These are the leaders that bring you to many a crossroad: Do I try to influence and change them or keep quiet and ride it out? How do I buffer my people from this, yet still foster visibility of my team’s talent with our leaders? And ultimately, if the interactions continue this way, the question will come … do I stay or do I go?

The answers to these questions will be unique to you, so there’s no tidy formula to suggest other than scenario planning with a trusted confidante or coach who has your best interest as their only motive and can support you in vetting all of your options. If you don’t have such a person available, give me a shout and let’s see how we might move you forward.

 

INVITATION: If you’ve faced similar circumstances and found an effective approach for handling these dynamics, I’d love to hear from you.  I’ll share some of the best (a totally subjective assessment!) recommendations and strategies in a future post.

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