“Can you give advice for those with managers who fit these descriptions?”
A discerning reader posed that question after reading my last two blogs, How 3 Leaders’ Mistakes Undermined Their Leadership, and How to Use The Platinum Rule to Engage Employees. Both blogs focused on executives Silvia, Ophelia, and Felix, who did not know how to adjust when their habitual approaches didn’t work with particular employees.
Sometimes there’s no consultant, coach, or esteemed colleague to give execs the feedback they need to help them break out of their patterns and switch to what actually works. So if you reported to one of these folks, how could you shift the balance by yourself?
Be Sure to Earn Your Boss’s Confidence
Let’s say you work for someone like Silvia, who specializes in a kind of benign neglect. You have to get her attention. Whether you need her involvement to clarify a goal, intervene in an organizational problem, or provide direction to the team, keep in mind that she already thinks she’s supporting you because she feels positively about you. She assumes that you don’t need anything else from her, so don’t try to “send her a message,” or wait for her to notice that you’re struggling. You have to be overt and concrete, and you don’t want to look weak, or like a permanently nervous ninny.
You may want to approach her on an as-needed basis or ask her for a weekly check in, as happened with the “real” Silvia; in either case, here’s one potential approach: “Silvia, I really appreciate your confidence in me. I want to be sure I’ve earned it and not that I was just lucky!”
And after the conversation: “Thanks for your guidance; it’s really helpful.” The compliment and appreciation substantiate that the time she spent was worthwhile.
Keep in mind that she won’t be all that sympathetic if you tell her you’re not sure what to do, because she assumes you actually know. If it’s still early in the relationship, you could start with: “Silvia, do you think it would be better for me to do A, B, or C? Let me tell you what I’m thinking, and then you can tell me if you think it’s appropriate.”
Once you’ve worked with her for a while, you can shift to reporting in after the fact: “Silvia, I just chose B. Does that seem okay?” Over time, there will be fewer situations in which you continue to need her input or explanation.
Check in for Clarity
Now, if you’re on Ophelia’s team, and she’s constantly seeking your opinion along with everyone else’s, you’ve got a different problem. It’s best if you all remember that Ophelia is in her job for a reason. The leadership has put her there, so the practical thing is to prep her, help her, and support her so that she can, in fact, do the best job possible. It’s just not smart to try to take over from her.
You can help her help you though, by letting her know afterward when she wasn’t clear in a meeting, or when her point of view did not come across strongly enough: “Ophelia, I think you were trying to get us to see that thus-and-so, is that right?” Even during a meeting you can ask: “Ophelia, are you saying such-and-such?” But never say, as if you are her translator, “Ophelia is trying to say x, y, z.” (Don’t say that about anyone, by the way — it always comes across as denigrating.)
You can also clue her in to the fact that if the direction is not clear enough, other team members can get anxious or waste time in non-priority pursuits. It’s important to both morale and operating efficiency that everyone knows where Ophelia stands once the discussion is over; you could encourage her that it would be helpful if she probed for their understanding before she leaves the meeting so that she can clarify if necessary.
Showcase the Small Stuff
Felix, the micromanager, is Silvia’s opposite. He needs to know that the work will come out perfectly, and he always sweats the details. You need to prove to him that you can function at that level of detail too, so show him how you’ve dotted every “i” and crossed every “t.” Once you’ve built an excellent track record, you can ask for more leeway. You can also give him a bit of a security blanket by setting up milestones and checkpoints: “Felix, if you’ll make it clear to us where you want to end up with the project, we’ll be come back and show you our progress at each stage.”
Help Your Manager, Help Yourself
From the employee’s point of view, the crux of each of these cases is that you can’t wait for a boss who doesn’t get you to suddenly get you — or to recognize, out of the blue, how best to work with you. You have to initiate the discussion about how you can best work with them: Tell your boss how much you care about working with, supporting, and satisfying him or her — and how you’re going to strive to do just that.
It is always management’s responsibility to provide leadership and structure and to help employees do their best. But when any of that leadership is absent, incomplete, or misdirected, employees who can see how to help their managers are also helping themselves and their organizations. Sometimes it’s by recognizing what your boss hasn’t got that you become an emergent leader yourself.
Onward and upward,