We've all experienced it at one time or another: a boss who makes poor decisions that continue to baffle you. Still, that doesn't make it any less agonizing. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to be the voice of reason and mitigate the problem.
When a manager makes repeated bad judgment calls, it can be unnerving for so many reasons. It's common to go through some or all of these feelings:
1) Disbelief. You wonder how someone with more experience and authority than you could be blind to the ramifications of their decision and adamantly disagree with you.
You may well have the facts or know what's best – for the project, client, team or company. But your manager may become reminiscent of a toddler who keeps repeating, "Nooooo!" It can seem like Mission Impossible to show them the light.
2) Uncertainty. You're not sure how to respond to the request or push-back you're getting. You're walking a tightrope: you don't want to sabotage your job, but you also feel that it is your job is to tell your boss when a huge mistake is looming.
3) Anger. Sometimes the ill-fated decision can hurt your productivity or that of others on the team; undo weeks or months of hard work; and/or be a major morale zapper. So it's only natural that you'll shift into anger, because of the dilemma, conflict and fallout.
4) Frustration. When your manager is stubborn or seems unapproachable for what you consider a logical discussion, you may become irritable or have a lack of patience at work, because you feel you must constantly turn a blind eye to the situation. It adds a layer of stress that can be overwhelming at times.
5) Acquiescence. If you have a uniquely trusting relationship with your manager, you may be able to push back directly. But most often, people take the path of least resistance and avoid any threats to their own livelihood. So you may go about your business, acquiescing with ongoing resentment.
6) Mistrust. Nothing erodes trust in the workplace faster than a manager who’s constantly inflexible for the sake of appearing in charge. As you proceed with future projects, you may come to feel that you must keep your distance, can’t be yourself or share your honest opinion. In contrast, the best leaders encourage diverse opinions and challenges (within reason, of course).
Questions may constantly plague you, such as: How can they: make unilateral decisions without needed information; not see the bigger picture or ramifications of their choices; not trust my judgment; or choose face-saving moves over reason?
A Real-life Story
A mid manager – let’s call him Steve – recently told me about a situation where he tried to persuade his manager to channel more marketing efforts to software companies – which is exactly where the firm was directing its sales efforts. His manager was defiant – and when Steve tried a different approach on the same subject after a few weeks, his boss became livid.
It was beyond Steve why their advertising and promotional efforts would not support the same market the sales team was already targeting. Making matters worse, everyone else on the management team just deferred to his boss. Steve ultimately accepted another position…and about six months after he left, one of his confidantes at the former employer told him that the boss was finally pushing through the initiative. Steve said to me: "I'm still in disbelief that they were so defiant just to save face." I replied, “Welcome to the TOT Zone!”
If you’ve ever experienced this (like most working mortals), there is hope. Consider some of these options before you pack up and leave!:
1) Make sure you fully understand their statement or position. It's easy to go into autopilot or default to hot buttons, misinterpreting someone's intentions. That can make you overreact. Give 110 percent when you listen to their perspective. Once you have the facts, you can begin to collect your own.
2) Clarify their stance. Sometimes when a manager hears their request or "command" rephrased objectively, it can encourage further discussion. For example, without being confrontational, you can rephrase and ask: "So are you saying you want to focus on other industries besides software, like X and Y?"
You also want to find out why, but by just stating the question "Why?" – it can appear threatening. A better choice is to ask if the decision is based on X, even if it’s just an educated guess: “Is that because our sales efforts are being shifted more towards manufacturing?” This will help make your approach become more inquisitive and conversational, versus challenging.
As your boss talks through his perspective, this approach may also reveal to him more clearly the ramifications of the ill-informed decision. It also has the benefit of your boss feeling heard. On the flip side, your inquiry could reveal a legitimate reason for their hard-line stance.
3) Diplomatically demonstrate rational thinking using facts, and questions. This is where your emotional intelligence is put to the test. Bosses never want to lose face – and many like to believe that new approaches are at least partly their own. They also want to see a direct benefit (yes, to them personally, at times).
Example: "I understand that we need to think through this process carefully. Here’s some data on where we’re deriving sales, and where our marketing dollars are being spent. I know that you’re focused on the Sales team penetrating the software market, and this would reinforce that initiative. This would likely increase revenues further by X percent. Look at this data…”
4) Find allies in advance. There’s always power in numbers. To the extent you can get other colleagues or managers to weigh in with their perspectives before you propose ideas, you’ll have a valuable sounding board before going into battle. If your approach is better for the company, you may get needed support. Your colleagues may even feel vested in seeing your ideas implemented.
Just remember that your strategy isn’t to prove your boss wrong; it’s to prove both of you right. In other words, you’re saying to your manager that this effort will further support his other, larger objectives – and "here’s how others see that happening..."
5) Prepare a formal proposal. Some poorly trained managers can’t even get past hearing a few sentences before putting up a wall. If this is your boss, you may have to make your case in a concise, persuasive email and/or report. It may be difficult for your manager to push back when facts jump off their computer screen – and it’s understood that an email with solid logic can also be sent to others.
6) Know when to move on. This may either be a case of: whether you want to win the battle and potentially lose the war – or a situation where doing nothing will just erode your job satisfaction. If your boss is intransigent, and you’ve tried these approaches, you can’t fight what you can’t control. What you can control is how you manage the situation.
Ask yourself: “Will this negatively affect the department or company significantly?” “Will this poor decision make it difficult for me to respect my boss?” “Is his or her unreasonable approach pervasive in too many other areas?” If everything else in your job is good, then take a step back and evaluate; the issue could resolve itself with time. But if the answer to many of these types of questions is “yes,” then you may want to initiate a job search while you bide time in your current position.
It can be a challenge to work for a Terrible Office Tyrant. But if you adopt a strategic, diplomatic approach when you see bad decisions coming your way, you'll at least have a fighting chance.