I recently answered the following question on LinkedIn:
How do you (convincingly pretend) to listen and respect your Pointy Haired Boss? How do you hide the fact that you are thinking “my God, you are so clueless yet so oblivious to it”?
Name-calling aside, it is easy to identify with the author’s plight. Who among us has not had the same thought at one time or another (or for years at a time!)?
Most answers up to that point advised him to either quit as soon as possible or just grin and bear it. The following was my brief response:
Consider that you are contributing to his cluelessness if you are not providing constructive feedback. Instead of asking how you hide it, perhaps the question to ask is “How do you respectfully inform your boss that s/he is negatively affecting your or your company’s performance?”
I’m guessing that’s not the response he was looking for when he asked the question, but he probably wasn’t satisfied with the other two options either.
Sure, he could quit, but what if he really enjoys his work and his coworkers, and doesn’t want to leave the company? Besides, what happens next time he finds himself in the same situation?
The “grin and bear it” solution creates a pressure-cooker scenario. Accepting the situation as-is does nothing to solve what is most likely a real problem. It is not going to fix itself.
So, if addressing the issue is the best solution, how do you respectfully inform your boss that he is negatively affecting your or the company’s performance? Follow these steps:
- Stop the name-calling and talking behind his back about it (and griping on public forums!). It only serves to destroy your own integrity, and it fuels your rage.
- Realize that the “clueless” leader is the norm, not the outlier. The higher up in the organization you are, the less people tell you what you don’t want to hear. And you don’t notice the change.
- Get clear about what the real issue is. If you’ve been working with this boss for a while, chances are that everything he says is annoying. Take a step back to understand what really needs to be addressed. If it still seems like a lot of things, choose the most important. You don’t want to generate a laundry list or it will seem like an attack.
- Make sure you are in the right frame of mind for an effective conversation. Approach it with a genuine perspective that you are trying to help your boss, or at least doing the best thing for the company. If you go into the conversation seeking to right a wrong or to exact some kind of revenge, not only will your boss be more defensive during the conversation, but it will be more awkward afterward.
- Plan when you will have the conversation. You don’t necessarily have to schedule it with your boss, but know ahead of time for yourself when and where you will talk.
- At the beginning of the conversation, ask permission to give the feedback. It is unlikely that he will say “no,” and after saying “yes” he at least needs to hear what you have to say.
- Unless you have permission to represent a group, don’t drag other people into it. It might be comfortable to make yourself seem like one of many, but from the boss’s point of view, that’s a mutiny.
- Be honest and direct. Tell your boss the experience from your perspective, and what the implications are. Use specific examples.
- Expect your boss to be defensive. He may deny it or even turn it around to be your own fault. Don’t become defensive yourself. If you feel that you’ve made your case, thank him for letting you share your perspective and politely end the conversation.
- Thank him for listening (even if it seems like he didn’t). If the conversation went well, ask how you can best follow up.
Perhaps it’s not your boss who needs his mirror polished. As an organizational change agent, you know the leaders who need to change their own behavior to make the initiative successful. If you are not having these conversations, who is?
If you need to have a conversation like this, but you struggle with the best approach, please contact me and we’ll talk through it.