The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
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My Boss's Approach Is Wrong For Me

The "Bad Boss" Epidemic:
Part III of IV

When Your Boss's Approach Is Wrong For You

Sometimes your boss just doesn't get you.
How hard can it be to manage you the "right" way?

Welcome to the continuation of the series: The "Bad Boss" Epidemic. This article addresses a third common struggle in the workplace:  when your boss's management style and approach isn't right for you.

You've probably heard the term "situational leadership" at work. The theory is that leaders adjust their management style to the needs of employees, motivating each person in a way that works best for them. The employee is happier and more productive, and the leader is more successful. It's a great theory and it works. But it's unlikely that you've actually seen it in practice. Most managers settle into an entrenched style of leadership and stick with it, whether it works for their employees or not.

When your boss's management style isn't a good fit for you, it's like wearing a coat that's two sizes too small. It just feels wrong. You feel uncomfortable and unable to function. You can't wait to shake it off at the end of each day. In most cases, the burden of finding a better "fit" isn't the responsibility of your boss. Unfortunately, it's up to you. You have to find a way to make your boss's style and approach a better fit for you. The good news is that you can.
How do you make a management style that's wrong for you... work?

What Makes Your Boss Bad?

As I kicked off this series, I identified four challenges you may have with your boss:
Competence: Does your boss have the right knowledge and perspective to lead the team?  Does he or she have the right skills and competencies? Does your boss have good judgment and the ability to make sound decisions?
Likability:  Do you like your boss's personality; do you get along? Does your boss have an ego that gets in the way of your relationship? Is your boss respectful and sensitive to you and your colleagues?
Approach:  Does your boss's management style work well for you? Does he or she communicate with the transparency, frequency, relevance, and style that you prefer? Does your boss accept accountability, or blame, bully and sabotage others?
Integrity:  Is your boss honest and does he or she honor commitments? Is your boss fair in the treatment of employees? Does your boss discriminate? 
Most people who struggle with a perceived "bad" boss have concerns in one or more of these four areas. The last two articles addressed what to do when you believe your boss is incompetent and how to work well with a boss you dislike. This week, we're focused on Part III: Approach.

My Boss's Approach Is Wrong For Me

When people struggle with management style and approach, concerns generally fall into a few broad categories. Maybe it's the level of oversight your boss provides; too much or too little can be challenging. Or it could be the way he or she communicates - what's shared, how it's shared, and how you interact one-on-one. It may be your boss's willingness to accept accountability and behave in a way that's respectable and responsible as a leader in the organization. 

The issue here isn't about what's right vs. wrong in leadership styles as a general principal. We'll leave that debate to others. All that matters is what's right or wrong as a leadership style for you. The key to making a "wrong" fit work for you, is accepting that you'll need to find a middle ground with your boss. You'll have to meet him or her at least halfway, and normally quite a bit more than halfway, to cultivate a better working relationship. 

It's unlikely you can change your boss. But you may be able to change specific behaviors that improve your ability to work well together. Here are some tips to help you navigate the murky waters of making your boss's management style and approach work for you.

a.  My boss gives me too much or too little guidance.
All of us have a certain amount of direction we want in the workplace. Give us too much, and we feel controlled and micro-managed. Don't give us enough, and we feel aimless and confused. Sometimes we also have very specific likes and dislikes with regard to how we're managed. For leaders, this is the most challenging part of their job. What's the right amount - for any one person and for a team overall? It's no wonder that your boss gets it wrong for you sometimes; you're one of many who have varying preferences.
What to do:
There's only one way to address this challenge:  Directly. The best thing you can do for your own success and satisfaction is to help your boss understand how to help you do your best work. You're the only one who can communicate what you need and prefer. You can be direct or you can be subtle.
I once had someone tell me that her boss should "just know" how to manage "right." The challenge with that is that no two people agree on what "right" looks like. Reality is that the only way you'll be managed in the way you prefer... is to communicate what you want. It's possible that your boss won't have any challenge adapting to your needs, whether it's more or less direction you want. It may even be a relief to know with certainty what you want. You won't know until you try.
If you feel you're getting too much direction, let your boss know that you'd like to have a little more leeway in managing your responsibilities on a daily basis. Give specific examples of what you'd like to see done differently, but be gentle. Say something like, "Would it be okay if we touched base <this way> instead of <the current way>?" It's also helpful to say "Can we try <this>?" to request a change. Focus on what matters most to you and see if you can change one thing at a time. You may just start a trend in the right direction. Be sure to mention why you want more leeway, and highlight the benefit to your boss and/or the business as well.
If you're getting too little direction, ask for more. I know, it seems too simple. But you'd be surprised how many people misfire in these situations. The trick is to make this easy for your boss. For example, don't say, "I'm not sure what you want me to do." Say instead, "I just want to be sure I'm clear on what you expect. I think you said <this> and <this>. Is that correct? Is there more that I'm missing?" If you have questions, simply say, "Would it be okay if I ask you a few quick questions about <direction>?" 
If you're looking for context, meaning you're not sure "why" something is being done or requested, you may or may not be successful changing your boss's approach. Some leaders want their employees to just do what they're told, without context. Others are willing to share the "why" so you have the full picture. All you can do is ask. You may get lucky. One approach: "I think I'm clear on what you're asking me to do. I'm not clear, though, on why. Would you be willing to share more information? I'd just like to understand the big picture." Only do this when it really matters or you're struggling to follow a directive. Curiosity is generally good, but only in small doses.
b.  My boss doesn't communicate effectively.
The first step in addressing communication challenges is to understand the real challenge. Do you struggle with what your boss communicates, or how he or she does it? Or both? This is among the most challenging aspects to address in a working relationship with your boss, because it's hard to make it about you. Any feedback will likely be viewed as criticism of their skill or competency. Be attentive to this inclination, though, and you're more likely to make progress.
What to do
Try to avoid comparing your boss to better communicators or focusing on how he or she "should" communicate. Commit to reinforcing positive communications, to encourage more of the same. Only focus on critical feedback if it impacts your job performance. 
If you've been lucky enough to have a boss who communicates well, having a boss who communicates ineffectively is all the more painful. A big part of making the situation more tolerable for yourself is avoiding comparisons. There's no question that everyone wants their leader to communicate well, in a group setting and one-on-one conversations. You don't always get what you want. Not to be flippant, but if you can set aside your disappointment, it will bother you far less. That said, don't believe for a moment that you can't influence improvements. You can.
Pay particular attention to any circumstance where your boss either communicates the right message or does it the right way. Be sure to acknowledge it with positive feedback. Don't throw a parade (little obvious), but mention in passing how helpful the information was and how useful it will be. Or thank them for taking the time to share more information or explain something so well. If you have a positive one-on-one conversation, tell your boss that it was a good discussion, and thank him or her as you leave. Try this and you'll be amazed at how small acknowledgements reinforce good behavior on a very subconscious level. Think of it like the class clown who jokes even more, once he knows the pay-off is laughter. Or the toddler, who risks falling on her face to have her parents clap like seals when she takes two steps. Positive reinforcement is VERY powerful when it comes to subtle encouragement in the workplace.
If your boss's communications are impacting your job performance in some way, you need to take action. Spoiler alert: there's no magic bullet here. In a group setting, sometimes our boss's can make us look bad, by how they present information or by the level of respect they demonstrate. In personal discussions, our boss's can be passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, non-committal, disrespectful, or mean - among many other approaches that damage the relationship. You can certainly choose to tolerate and bite your tongue, but if your performance - or perceptions of your performance - is jeopardized, you should consider speaking up or escalating your concern.
To highlight concerns about group dynamics, you can ease into expressing your concern by saying something like, "I'm concerned that the group may misinterpret your comments to mean <this>. It's important to me that this group has the right impression of <me, or my performance, or our results>. I could really use your help and support moving forward as we communicate with them." Your boss may ask what you mean or want specifically. Be prepared to answer, and try to do so without judgment. Make it about you if at all possible.
If your challenge is with one-on-one communications, make a run at gently asking for a change. By this, I mean saying something fairly innocuous to test the waters for how receptive your boss is to change. Example: "I sense that you're <frustrated, disappointed, angry> with me. That's certainly not my intent. What would you like to see me do differently?" Or "I'm not sure we're on the same page and I certainly want to be. Can we talk more about <this> to make sure I'm on the right track and meeting your expectations?"  Or "I'd really like to come to agreement on <this>. What do you need from me to finalize a plan?" 
These are not fun conversations, but sometimes just highlighting that you're not okay with the approach changes it over time. When it doesn't, you should consider a request for coaching from your Human Resources contact. Your intent should never be to complain, but to ask for guidance, at least initially. (In situations where you feel unsafe or threatened, absolutely escalate the concern immediately and remove yourself from the situation by saying, "I need to excuse myself for a moment."
c.  My boss blames, bullies, or sabotages others.
One characteristic that impacts perceptions of a leader's style more than any other is his or her interaction with others on issues of accountability. Misbehavior in this one area can overshadow all other positive attributes a leader demonstrates, causing negative perceptions as a whole. It's not a stretch to say that most people expect their leader to be respectful and responsible in the workplace. 
We want leaders to own every decision they make, accepting criticism if results are negative, and sharing credit if results are positive. We want them to avoid being a bully, blaming others, or sabotaging the efforts of colleagues in the interest of looking better. Most of the time, these challenges are minimal or intermittent, if present at all with our own boss. But sometimes, poor behavior is overwhelmingly in play, and we have to manage around it to maintain a positive working relationship with our boss.
What to do:
Don't mimic your boss's behavior; avoid taking part in these tactics whenever possible. Confirm your direction and accountabilities in writing. Document your progress and achievements frequently. Use discretion in sharing what you know. Don't escalate concerns unless you perceive damage to yourself, others, or the business overall.
Many times we're tempted to take on the attributes of our boss. It's a great way to gain alignment. It also just happens a bit organically over time through proximity. That said, when it comes to questionable accountability and negative interactions with others, I suggest you retreat rather than align. 
Your boss may fall anywhere on a long and varied continuum of bad behavior here. Your place is not to judge. Most of the time, you can observe your boss's behavior and do your best to steer clear of it. The more distance you create, the more you protect your own reputation from "guilt by association." This also allows you to be less impacted negatively by his or her actions. Try not to let behavior in this one area overshadow any positives that exist in other areas. Being judge, jury and executioner doesn't serve you well in the workplace.
If your boss tries to pull you in and have you adopt these behaviors, you need to be thoughtful about your response. If your boss asks you to do something that falls over the line, as you draw it, first think about any other options you have available to you, to achieve what your boss has asked. Is there a way to accomplish the task at hand, while still maintaining your integrity? 
If you can't think of a way around the request, your best bet is to be honest and say, "<This> makes me uncomfortable. I'm not questioning your direction by any means, but I don't feel right taking that action on a personal level. I'd feel more comfortable doing <a, b, c>. Or perhaps you can have someone else take this one." 
There's no easy way to decline taking action at your boss's direction, but you don't stand a chance if you judge. Avoid judgment and make your response entirely about you and your own preferences. In all cases, document the discussion in terms of place, time, circumstance and specific request. Tuck it away in a confidential and safe place, in case the issue ever surfaces in a way that will damage you. In most cases, your boss will gravitate toward someone they believe is already inclined to behave as their partner in this effort.
If you know your boss plays "dirty" on occasion with regard to bullying, blaming or sabotaging others, you should expect that one day it will be directed toward you. One aspect of managing a bad boss is keeping fear of damage from coloring your actions on a daily basis. Protect yourself to eliminate this concern. Document your accountabilities and assignments periodically. Ask your boss to confirm in writing that you're focused on the right things and clear on his or her expectations. This can be done with a simple email, such as "I just want to be sure I'm focused where you want me. Please confirm?", followed by a list of your accountabilities. Do the same periodically with accomplishments, sending status summaries to your boss highlighting key areas of progress and results achieved. Eliminate the fear of bad boss repercussions and you'll have a better relationship by default.
Finally, if you're aware that your boss has a questionable approach to accountability and interpersonal relationships in the workplace, use caution in sharing this information with others. This isn't the topic to chat with your co-workers about or shred your boss about with colleagues at the water cooler. If you feel the business or a colleague is threatened, by all means go to someone you trust in Human Resources, share what you know, and/or ask for their guidance. In all other cases, focus on doing your job and give your boss the latitude to behave as he or she sees fit in their role. It's hard to let this behavior continue when you believe strongly that you're right and they're wrong. Sometimes you have to allow your boss's boss to decide what will be tolerated.
Bottom Line

When you and your boss don't align from a management style perspective, it's hard to feel successful or satisfied in your job. Your boss feels "wrong" for you. It's frustrating when you realize that you can't fundamentally change your boss. His or her style is one cultivated over time and it's likely entrenched. That said, you can find middle ground, even in the most challenging of circumstances.

If your boss doesn't provide the right amount of guidance or direction, let him or her know. Help your boss understand what works better for you and why, by asking for more leeway or requesting additional guidance. Over time, you'll reach a new set point in your relationship.

If your boss is an ineffective communicator, focus first on avoiding comparisons to others who are more articulate. Reinforce positive communications to encourage more of the same. When needed, express what you find challenging in your communications. Just do so without judgment, and make the concern about you and what you need, vs. what is lacking on your boss's part.

When faced with accountability challenges, such as blaming, bullying or sabotage, avoid adopting your boss's behaviors. Disassociate from them. If you're asked to engage, politely decline, but always try to be creative in finding alternatives you can live with comfortably. Protect yourself from your boss's negative behaviors by documenting your accountabilities and results regularly.

Know that you don't have to prefer your boss's management style and approach to be able to work with it. Your boss is unlikely to change, but he or she can adapt (as you can) given the right motivation and perspective. Help your boss evolve from being wrong for you, to being right. Or less wrong. That's all you really need.

More soon,