What to Do When Your Boss is Making Your Job Difficult
I recently came across this Twitter thread on “11 Promises from a Manager”.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s a quick and inspiring read that’s essentially a wish list of what you’d want from a boss. Or to quote Mary Poppins, a manager who’s “practically perfect in every way”.
Imagine a boss who meets with you regularly, provides feedback, listens to your concerns, supports your development, and trusts you to do your work so they don’t need to micromanage you.
While it would be fantastic to have a manager like this, for most of us the reality is a little different… maybe even a lot different.
If you’re not blessed with that “unicorn” manager, here are some things you can do.
If your boss cancels meetings
Start by seeing if it happens with others too. In all likelihood, this is just your boss’s normal way of working or what I think of as their “MO” (modus operandi). So, don’t read too much into it and don’t take it personally.
They might just have a short attention span. Like one of our top executives who explained, “if we’re meeting for more than 10 minutes, that means you’re in trouble and I’m raking you over the coals!”.
If your boss doesn’t like scheduled meetings or calls, figure out how they prefer to work. For example, Mike’s boss hates formal meetings but is totally open to people stopping by or calling unannounced for a 2-minute update or to ask for a quick piece of advice. Mike has learned to master these “fly by” sessions by always having a 30 second sound bite ready.
If your boss doesn’t set an agenda for your meetings
No agenda? No problem. Whether or not your boss sets an agenda, it’s a good idea to have an agenda of your own. So look on this as an opportunity to set the agenda.
Have a list ready to propose, and make sure you’re focusing on the most important things your boss needs to know or is uniquely able to advise you on. This way you can also show you’re strategic.
If you want your boss to be prepared, you can send an email with your proposed agenda ahead of time. And make the topic list intriguing for your boss. When they read it, you want them to think, “yes, this deserves my attention and I’m interested in having this conversation”.
If your boss asks to meet with you but doesn’t say why
Uncertainty triggers even the most confident of us to worry about the downside situation. So when you get a note from your boss asking to meet with you at the end of the day, it’s easy for your imagination to run wild.
In my case, I worried the whole afternoon and hardly got anything done only to learn that my boss had put me on a high-profile committee and wanted to let me know.
To avoid this waste of energy, practice not letting uncertainty get to you. See how you can stay in a trusting state of mind. Assume your boss has good intentions and that you can handle whatever it is your boss tells or asks you. Learn to be curious in the face of suspense rather than fearful.
And when you’re the boss, be sure to let your team member know why you want to meet with them.
If your boss makes announcements that affect you without telling you first
This is not only frustrating, but it also creates resentment and destroys trust. While it’s hard to change your boss’s habits in the short term, this trust-destroying behavior will come back to bite them in the long run.
In the meantime, your best strategy is to make sure you attend the meetings where announcements tend to be made so you hear the news. And then take the initiative to advocate for yourself afterwards, ideally one-on-one.
For example, my client Amy (not her real name) was on a group call where her boss volunteered her for a project that was part of her old job. She was furious not to be consulted first and upset because this would eat into the time she had for her new role.
Amy and I crafted a strategy for approaching her boss and having that “difficult conversation” to advocate for herself. In the end, her boss found someone else to do the project so Amy could focus on her new role, and their relationship is stronger than ever.
If your boss doesn’t provide feedback
If your boss doesn’t give you feedback, get in the habit of asking for it. When you ask, experiment with different approaches. For example, if a general question like, “how am I doing?” leads to a non-answer like “you’re doing great, keep it up!” then try something more specific.
If your boss is squeamish about criticizing work you’ve already done, try asking for what CEO Coach Marshall Goldsmith calls “feed-forward”: “what can I do to improve XYZ in the future?”
You can also ask other stakeholders for feedback or feed-forward to get a well-rounded picture of how you can keep improving.
A former colleague made it normal for people to give her feedback even though we worked in an environment where it wasn’t normal. After every client meeting, she asked her colleagues, “what went well and what could I do better next time?”
While they were uncomfortable answering at first, they soon realized she was serious about improving and they gave her specific feedback she could use. She would then say thank you, adopt the feedback and keep improving. She developed a reputation for being easy to give feedback to and her career took off faster than her peers.
If your boss micromanages and keeps checking on you
Having been a micromanaging boss myself, I find it’s often rooted in a combination of wanting things done perfectly and needing to feel in control. There are two keys to handling this kind of boss well.
The first is “good contracting upfront”. That means discussing expectations and agreeing the ground rules right at the start. For example, setting progress milestones, when and how often your boss wants updates, which decisions to elevate and so on.
While it’s best to do this at the start of your relationship, the second-best time is right now. Then check with your boss periodically to make sure the agreement is working for both of you.
The second is “feeding the machine”. This means providing information before your boss asks for it. The more you can be transparent, the more your micromanaging boss will trust you. And they’ll be able to turn to someone else and micromanage them instead of you.
If your boss is a gatekeeper between you and senior managers
If your boss won’t let you talk to your skip level boss or other senior managers, find another way to get to them. For one of my group coaching clients, it was through her company’s mentoring program where she could choose a senior mentor. She chose her skip level boss.
For a former colleague, it was through her role in the company’s Women’s Network where she handled the speaker series. She asked her skip level boss to be a speaker.
For you it could be through a cross-divisional task force where your skip level boss or other senior stakeholders are involved, attending an event where your skip level boss will also attend, inviting them to a client pitch, or simply being prepared for when you bump into each other in the hallway.
When you do get this audience, be sure to keep your boss informed to preserve and build your relationship. Then report back with a summary afterwards, including the positive things you said about your boss and the unit.
If your boss takes credit for your work
This is where you’ll need to get ahead of the curve and let people know what you’re working on before your boss can take credit for it.
For example, if you ask for advice from key stakeholders and mentors about your project, they’ll know you’re working on it… and you might get some useful input.
Or get third parties to provide testimonials on your behalf. This could be a client who sends a glowing email which you forward on to others. Or you could ask a senior colleague who has seen you in action to mention your work to your skip level boss.
You can improve your situation with your boss
If you’re lucky enough to have a boss who’s practically perfect in every way, serve them well and strive to be like that yourself. But if you don’t, then know that there are still things you can do to improve your situation.
If you have a less than perfect boss, which of these strategies will be most useful to you?
Leave a comment and let me know.