By Joseph Grenny
My boss is a big fan of yours, but I think he’s misusing his understanding of your material to bully people then patting himself on the back for being a great communicator.
I might approach him and say, “When I said [blank] in that meeting, you cut me off and responded in a tone that sounded sarcastic. I felt that you were not listening to my opinion.”
He’ll respond, “You need to ask yourself how you are perceiving the situation. You need to choose not to get upset. You should look at the situation as an opportunity to communicate. The more you practice, the better you will become.”
How can I approach this with him so that he will at least consider that he might need to change his own behavior?
Not Just About Me
Dear Not Just About Me,
I can feel your frustration. You’ve got a boss who has the solution to his own problem in his hands, but appears to be using it on everyone but himself.
I felt a bit of embarrassment as I read your question because I realized I can be that guy sometimes, too. I think most of us are better at diagnosing others than fixing ourselves. So my advice to you is:
1. Look for the truth
It seems that your focus is on how he is falling short of what he advocates. Don’t make the mistake of declining truth no matter the messenger. A friend used to say, “Even a hypocrite is useful if for nothing other than a bad example.” Your boss is challenging you to examine your own stories and emotions. If you want to gain the moral authority to ask him to listen to your feedback, first listen to his.
2. Challenge your view
Find a way to critique your own critique of the boss. Find others who might have a different view so you can confirm your criticisms of him aren’t exaggerated or self-serving. Be sure you aren’t taking things personally that others tend to brush-off. Confirm you are not making mountains out of what others think are molehills. Ask them for feedback about you as well so you can put your own house in order before attempting to address his.
3. Offer feedback
If you do a quality job on #1 and #2, you’re ready to talk. Begin by checking to see if he is ready. Acknowledge your concerns, but assure him your goal is dialogue not monologue. For example, “Boss, I’d like a few minutes to share some concerns and to invite your feedback as well. There are some things that are getting in my way. I realize some of them might be about me. Could we schedule some time when I could share my view and listen to yours, too?”
4. Give him a reason to listen
As you ask for this appointment, be sure to offer a Mutual Purpose. Asking, “Can I point out your flaws for fifteen solid minutes?” might not be very motivating to him. So help him frame this as a sincere opportunity to help him get something that is important to him—while also acknowledging its importance to you, too. For example: “After some of our staff meetings, I find myself feeling discouraged and disconnected. I don’t want to bring that to your team. I want to do my best work for you and for our customers. I want to feel 100% engaged in a way that you are thrilled about. That’s what this conversation is about. Can we talk?”
5. Share facts, not judgments
This is the tricky part. I worry from the tone of your question that you’ve got a lot of judgments about your boss. If so, you need to shed them as best you can. Otherwise, they will creep into your tone and word choice. You’ve got to see him as a reasonable, rational, decent person. You must come to see his weaknesses as human not villainous. I don’t mean to suggest you should put up with the weaknesses—just don’t turn him from a human into a villain because of them. As you offer your feedback, be sure to share facts and behaviors not judgments and emotions. For example, don’t say, “You misuse Crucial Conversations principles to bully people.” That’s a judgment. Rather, you might say, “When I try to share concerns about how you handled something in a meeting, you point out what I did wrong. This has happened four times.”
6. If he shows no interest, let it go and make a decision
No matter how scrupulous you are about examining yourself, creating safety, and offering facts, some people won’t listen. If, after making your best attempt, he appears impervious to feedback, you’ve got a choice to make. You must accept that this is who he is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Then you have to decide if you’re quality of life is enough at risk to make a change, or if this is trivial enough that you can cope. If you choose to cope, then acknowledge that you are making a decision to stay. Don’t play the victim by staying and blaming him. From this point forward, it is your choice to accept him as he is. If you can’t, then you have three options: 1. Stay, but find a way to distance yourself from his weaknesses; 2. Stay in the company but change bosses; or 3. Change companies. Some might complain at this advice, thinking, “That’s not fair! Why should his weaknesses mean that I have to change?” The answer is: “Because that’s how life works.” The only thing you can control is yourself. Everything else is about influence. If influence fails, controlling yourself is all you’ve got.
I hope influence works. It will be good for both you and him. And if not, I hope you can find a path to peace that works for you.