November 8, 2017

Horrible Boss: “I Love You. Now Get Up!”

Bosses are making everyone I know completely nuts. It should not be surprising.

A recent review of the academic literature concluded that “one in every two leaders and managers” is judged “ineffective (that is, a disappointment, incompetent, a mis-hire, or a complete failure) in their current roles” (The Economist (1/17/2016))

Another poll, for Parade magazine, found that 35% of American employees would forgo a substantial pay rise if they could see their direct supervisors fired.

Finally, my colleague and friend Dr. Gordon Curphy, one of the leading leadership scholars in the world today, is a veritable drumbeat about the woeful state of leadership and leadership development in corporations. Triangulating from a number of perspectives, Dr. Curphy estimates that 75-80% of leaders and managers range from mediocre to abject failures.

As an executive coach, I find a significant amount of time gets taken up listening to and developing strategies for helping my clients interact effectively with their bosses. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. A good working relationship with one’s boss is critical for success. If the relationship is rocky, it is going to take up a lot of CPU time.

Triangulating from a number of perspectives, Dr. Curphy estimates that 75-80% of leaders and managers range from mediocre to abject failures.

And I don’t even mind the hue and cry and gnashing of teeth from my clients about their bosses. I know it is cathartic. And it is absolutely essential for the next key step: getting over it.

In the first Matrix movie (the only good one I might add, but then everyone’s a critic), Neo appears to have died inside the matrix, but his body is back on the ship where Trinity is talking to him. She says [sweetly], “Neo, I’m not afraid anymore. The Oracle told me that I would fall in love, and that man, the man who I loved would be The One. And so you see, you can’t be dead. You can’t be, because I love you. You hear me? I love you. [Kisses him…then sternly] Now get up!”  Here is the scene on YouTube:

Some of my interactions with my clients eventually get to a point something like that. I empathize with them about the situation. “I do understand. You’re right…that is a horrible way to treat someone. I can’t believe the organization allows this to go on” etc. (That’s something like the I love you part.)

If this has been going on for awhile, I might at some point say “Guess what? Your boss is not going to change and it is your job…not hers…to make the relationship work.” (That’s the Now get up! part.)

The quality of leadership in corporations is not great, never has been, and shows no real signs of improving. Those leaders scoring highest on Emotional Intelligence or EQ, which tend to make people easier to work with, are likely not the ones getting promoted. Those getting promoted probably score higher on managing up and getting things done, neither of which have anything to do with what they are like to deal with or how they are leading the team.

Finally, what little leadership development training bosses do get is rarely focused on what it takes to build an effective team and is completely inadequate for seeing real behavior change. (Few leadership programs bother to measure whether there has even been any behavior change afterwards.)

There is a short list of options for dealing with a bad boss. You can of course ask your boss what she hopes to accomplish by repeatedly referring to the team as a bunch of idiots. And there is nothing wrong with expressing your preference that she try to refrain. Sotto voce: Any wagers on the likelihood of success with a boss like that?

You can talk to HR. This can be risky, but I have seen it done successfully…a CFO client of mine hung in there until her horrible boss, the COO, was fired but it was a long, painful, emotionally draining process.

You can also end the misery by finding another job. This is a very viable alternative for talented employees, but one that comes with a lot of personal disruption. In addition, given how widespread bad managers are, chances are good your next boss will just have a different set of annoying traits.

The most reliable path however, and one that is always available to you, is to work on yourself. Treat your boss like the people in Seattle treat rain or the people in Minnesota treat the cold…there is nothing they can do about it so, the wise ones at least, stop fighting with “the way things are” and just deal. They carry umbrellas. They take up winter sports.

It is interesting that we are so much more accepting when what troubles us does not involve other people. Put a person in the equation and we make all kinds of attributions about why they are the way they are and have an ironclad, collegiate debate team worthy argument for why they are completely wrong and have to change.

In both cases we are not getting something we want: We wish it weren’t raining or freezing…again…and we wish our boss gave us more notice before something was due, especially given how many times we asked her. With the rain we say, “oh, well.” With our stone-in-my-shoe boss we go into a flat spin about how unfair it all is…sometimes for weeks and even months.

Yes it would be way better if your boss didn’t seem to adore the sound of his own voice and dominate every single conversation; if the words “thank you” crossed her lips once a year; if he didn’t tergiversate; if she didn’t play favorites; if he accepted some accountability and didn’t constantly blame the team; if she didn’t send emails in the middle of the night expecting a quick response.

If you choose to stay, quit handing over the keys to your psychic kingdom…your happiness…your esteem…your well-being…to someone who clearly does not care about you or about what you think of their leadership.

The fact is there are lots of ways to be a leader. Your boss does not happen to lead the way you think she should. You might not even be alone in your assessment…maybe ten people on the team agree with you. But the organization has put her in charge and she is leading the way she is leading.

There is a chance the organization will eventually address it, but it would not be wise to count on that happening soon. Odds are a bad manager was promoted, not because of his people skills, but in spite of them and he will likely stay in the job for the same reason.

I was working with a CEO who had a member of his staff that was not just disliked but despised by his directs and his peers. When I asked, the CEO said, “He is serving a purpose.” You don’t need a Trix Decoder Ring to know that means to not hold your breath that the splenetic staff member will be dealt with in a timely fashion.

I am not advocating needless suffering. If you see a path to improve the situation, then by all means take it. Speak up…multiple times. Talk to HR. See if you can get a 360 survey done on him or her. Look for another job.

However, if 1) you want the job or you can’t leave right now for a host of personal reasons and 2) you have taken some proactive steps to express your preference for some style changes that would help you and the team be more effective, then it’s on you to get your head right. If you choose to stay, quit handing over the keys to your psychic kingdom…your happiness…your esteem…your well-being…to someone who clearly does not care about you or about what you think of their leadership.

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