“She micromanages”; “He delegates too much”; “She doesn’t allow us to give our input”; “His requests are indecipherable”; “She demands too much in too little time.” The list could go on and on. Difficult bosses…they seem determined to make our lives impossible.
Yes, there are challenging bosses out there. And there’s also our ability to respond to any given situation. Consider the following scenarios. For each situation, take a moment to honestly think how you would respond. What’s the immediate reaction that comes up in those few seconds after you are posed with the situation?
- When there’s a mistake or you are asked about a breakdown:
a) You identify who’s responsible for getting you into this situation. For example, “The report isn’t ready because the finance team didn’t post the data in the internal system.”
b) You acknowledge your contribution to the problem. For example, “I forgot to explicitly request from the finance team the data I needed to ensure I’d get it on time.”
- When your manager delegates a task and you are unclear about a few things:
a) You leave the conversation thinking what an ambiguous request and that you’ll do the best you can with the information you were given.
b) You ask for clarification.
- When you are asked for your opinion in the middle of a heated team meeting:
a) You give a polite opinion, wanting to avoid creating more disruption.
b) You express what you think in a way that is honest and at the same time respectful to others.
- If you disagree with your manager:
a) You share your point of view with colleagues but not with your manager. He doesn’t really listen, so what’s the point?
b) You express your disagreement with your manager, stating the facts that underlie your opinion and acknowledging that your perspective is one of many possibilities, not “the” truth.
The options might be a bit extreme, but they capture two archetypes: the victim and the player. In the “a” responses, the focus is on what others did wrong or should do differently. You suffer the consequences of external circumstances (e.g., the finance team didn’t do their job; your boss makes unclear requests). In the “b” responses, the focus is on how you contributed in some way to the situation and what you can do. You respond to external circumstances (e.g., you ask for clarification; you express your truth).
Acting as a victim might be more an automatic reaction than a conscious choice. It protects you from blame and feelings of failure. There’s safety in feeling innocent and watching from the sidelines. But it’s also disempowering. You get trapped in the assumption that there’s nothing you can do.
It’s not you; it’s me
The first step is to recognize that it’s not all about your manager. If you believe her actions are wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it, you are trapped in the mental model of the victim.
The most significant shift from victim to player is moving from a frame of mind of “it’s not up to me” to “what can I do.” A powerful way to do so is paying attention to your language.
As we saw in the examples at the beginning, the victim speaks in the third person and focuses on factors beyond his control: “The finance team didn’t post the information”; “It was too little time”; “The request was unclear”; “Management doesn’t support the idea.”
The language of the player instead starts with “I” and includes specific actions you could have taken or can now take. “I didn’t ask the finance team for the information”; “I underestimated the time it would take me to complete the report”; “I didn’t understand the request”; “I couldn’t convince management to support the idea.”
Another telling difference is that the victim uses the language of “should,” indicating obligation and judgment, while the player uses the language of “could,” indicating possibility and learning.
I’m not advocating for you to become a language fanatic, paying attention to each specific word, but to see language as an expression of your underlying frame of mind and to start paying attention to your automatic responses. Are you focusing on external causality or personal accountability? Are you focusing on what others should do or what you could do?
You can’t change how somebody else behaves. But you can influence through your thoughts and behaviors. Next time you are faced with an ambiguous request, instead of thinking “he should be better at delegating,” consider asking clarifying questions around quality standards, available resources and time of delivery. You are helping your boss be a better boss. And you leave the conversation empowered to actually get the task done.
A footnote for the leader
Just as we are inviting the reader to take ownership on how he or she responds to a “difficult boss,” as a leader, you also can take ownership if you have an unmotivated team member. How might you be contributing to this person’s engagement with the project, department or company? What example are you setting through your actions? How much do you focus on what others should have done versus what you can do? Are you having honest and respectful conversations around performance? Are you delegating clearly?
Creating an effective and meaningful relationship goes both ways. When we are unhappy with somebody else’s role or behaviors, a lot of energy goes into complaining, venting or denying. Shifting from outside causality to personal accountability, from blaming to owning, opens the space to identify what can be learned, what can be done, and how to make it happen.