When the Boss Isn’t Cutting It, What’s Really Wrong?

It’s no fun falling short. Most bosses know when employees don’t like or respect them. They often act like they don’t notice or are above caring.

Who can blame them for needing a coping mechanism?                                                         

As employees, we often assume our bosses know better—that they are ineffective on purpose. Everyone weighs in on what they believe the boss’s defects are

  • Poor communicator or decision-making
  • A pawn of upper management
  • Power-seeker who likes pushing people around
  • Biased or favorites player
  • Incompetent or in over his/her head 

Too often, the bosses don’t know what they’re doing wrong or are afraid to find out. 

Seeing things clearly 

Twice I was called by bosses who were faced with serious employee push-back problems. 

One told me that she needed help with her communications skills. Her employees told her she was too blunt, didn’t listen, and was impatient. “Could I help her fix that?” she asked. 

The second told me that his boss was exasperated by negative employee feedback that was rising up, with employees citing his impatience, unwillingness to “do his job,” and quick-trigger decision-making. “Could I help him fix that?” he asked.

To make a long story short, what was wrong were symptoms of what wasn’t there. 

These were two leaders who recently took over organizations where employees were: 

  • Unaccountable for results
  • Unaware of the declining conditions of the organization
  • Working in silos, adverse to collaboration
  • Protective of their position/situational power
  • Resistant to change

It wasn’t each boss’s personal style that was the problem but the absence of business best practices. They had both inherited organizations from predecessors who failed to lead

 Set employees up for success 

For bosses in this predicament, the first step is to refocus employees on the work and their roles. Success in business is about getting the right things done and not letting personalities, personal agendas, and unrealistic expectations get in the way. 

The two bosses I worked with were committed leaders—smart, courageous, visionary, and caring. So why were they perceived as being ineffective by their employees? They weren’t using basic management tools. 

Here were the issues: 

  • Employees were doing their own thing
  • No one saw the big picture
  • Expectations within and outside were unrealistic
  • Dissention and internal competition were rampant
  • Accountability was non-existent 

In each case, the bosses made no changes to his/her personal styles. Instead they implemented business management best practices: 

  • A “state of the organization” presentation to staff, clarifying the conditions and risks they were facing
  • A goals scorecard that stated in measurable/observable terms the outcomes to be achieved during the year
  • Updated position descriptions, rewritten, reviewed, discussed and agreed upon by the team
  • Individual performance goals developed collaboratively with the boss and each employee, aligning each employee’s work with the organization’s goals
  • Regularly scheduled progress meetings with action-oriented, time-boxed agenda items
  • Immediate dialogue to address issues, concerns, and performance 

Each boss put these tools in place. The first turned a declining non-profit into one sustaining positive growth and solid jobs in hard economic times. The second became the “poster child” for effective department management in his organization. 

Getting on the right track 

These two bosses were on the verge of seeing their careers go under because they assumed the problems they were facing were about their personal styles. Trying to remake themselves would have gotten them nothing but frustration. 

This is not to say that there aren’t some bosses with toxic personalities who are the problem. For them, supervising others is the wrong job and someone needs to fix that. 

Most bosses don’t have to change anything about themselves, but they must learn to cut it as effective managers! 

It takes time (and often courage) to get these best practices in place and there will be some employee resistance that bosses need to overcome. Without best practices in place, however, real improvement and employee engagement are highly unlikely. Are you ready to give it a try? 

Photo from Nathan & Jenny via Flickr