Thursday, September 2, 2010

What to do about a 'bad' manager Part I

A mentee once asked me "what can I do about my bad manager?"

Ah, what an interesting question and one many folks are asking as this economy forces more of us to stick to our current jobs longer than we may like. It is also a situation that has to be handled very delicately and diplomatically because in the end the boss is still the boss and presumably has the power and leverage in this situation.

When encountering this issue I like to first understand what the person means by 'bad' (by the way, other unprintable adjectives have been used in real life but I chose to stick with 'bad'). I generally categorize the feedback into 2 buckets: 1. "not on the same wavelength"/"communication issues" and 2. "incompetent leadership/management" or in other words "truly bad management". This second bucket will be addressed in another post.

So let's take the first bucket. Here's the kind of conversation I would have with the mentee:

Clearly not everyone was meant to click with everyone else. Perhaps the rapport you felt during the interview process has faded or more likely you have a brand new boss due to an organizational change. I would first want to find out if the issues are communication related. For example are you a 'move towards' person and your boss a 'move away' person? Are you a visual person (where drawing pictures aids the communication immensely) and your boss is someone that prefers to talk everything out (pictures don't mean much)? Are you a strategic thinker and your boss a tactical thinker? Or vice versa on any of these example questions?

If you can't answer these questions it probably means you haven't yet paid enough attention to the dynamic of your manager/employee relationship.

Another aspect to examine carefully is the existence of other workplace issues for you that are being projected onto your manager. For example, budgets are pretty tight in tough economic times and they tend to get even tighter towards the end of the year. I know of companies where you couldn't even purchase pens in the 4th quarter. That is incredibly frustrating but not necessarily the manager's fault. It's critical to separate circumstances out of your manager's control from their talent as a manager. The circumstances are what they are and it's best to focus your energy on creative ways of dealing with those circumstances rather than assigning blame to the boss.

Back to the "communication"/"not on the same page"/"not see eye to eye" reasons. If you determine that your manager is in fact talented and well-intentioned then something else must be off. Your styles may be different. Your approach to communication may be different or even in conflict (i.e. they are "big thinkers" but you need detailed conversation to be successful in your job). Here are some suggestions to move forward:

  1. Start off by resetting your opinion of your manager! If he/she is well-intentioned and competent you need to internally recognize that before proceeding because if you stay stuck with a negative opinion it will show one way or another. And that will only hurt the situation further.
  2. Analyze and identify what the differences between you and your manager are in order to tailor your approach to resolving those gaps. Review the questions listed above and figure out the answers. You may simply have different personalities. To use an MBTI-type example you may prefer to be "directed" but your manager prefers simply to "inform" you. (more in depth in another posting on this one).
  3. Make a list of these possible differences in your brain or on a piece of paper.
  4. For each item on that list make another list of possible workarounds. For example in the case where your boss is always thinking and communicating at a very high level/strategically and you need tactical guidance perhaps you can find an alternate person to work with to figure out a certain set of work issues. Perhaps your manager can even suggest who to talk to in those cases if you explain your need for this level of conversation in order to be successful at work.
  5. To the extent that the workarounds involve your manager or aren't obvious take the opportunity to sit down with your boss and openly discuss your perspective on the differences. Ask for their perspective and their suggestions for workarounds. Approach this conversation with the intent of searching together for an improved relationship. An open and honest conversation aimed at making the relationship better and helping you do a better job will be more than welcome by a good manager!
To summarize - if you actually have a good boss but it's just not working out make sure you separate the circumstances around your manager from your manager him/herself, figure out if you have different communication styles, personalities or approaches to work life and then build workarounds first with yourself and then in partnership with your manager.

I hope this provided some useful context and suggestions. In a second post on this topic I will explore ways to deal with a "truly bad manager" - someone who should never have gotten into management in the first place!

No comments: