What if my boss is the problem?


  • May 23, 2016
  • /   Quint Studer
  • /   quint-studer,training-development

During performance coaching over the years, I often explain three levels of employees.

There are those who exceed, those who meet and those who fail to meet expectations. I provide different coaching techniques depending on which category the employee is in.

Those who exceed expectations bring solutions. Employees who meet expectations are good to have on the team, even if they are less solution-oriented than employees who exceed expectations. The employees who do not meet expectations? They tend to fall into these types of behavior: Blaming others, denying fault, rationalizing their performance and an inability to take ownership.

Most people fit into the “exceed” and “meet” areas. Even if an employee falls into the bottom category, they may be very good in one area. Still, they may not do enough to make up for the detraction and distraction they cause the team as a whole. You may have a very accurate accountant in the finance department, but they just cannot get along with co-workers. This causes such workplace stress that it’s not worth having the person in the department.

This column focuses on the people who are not meeting workplace expectations, and in more detail, the bosses who are in that category.

After a speaking engagement, I often get candid questions from people who did not feel comfortable asking in front of a group.

In all my years, the most frequent question by far is: “What if my boss is the problem?”

Take our accountant example. If that accountant is in a supervisory role, they can be inconsistent and have emotional outbursts. To compound the problem, because they are in a leadership role, the behavior likely goes unchecked and unaddressed longer than if they were an hourly paid employee.

The higher up in an organization the performance problem lays, the more damage it can cause. I cover this topic in detail in my book, The Great Employee Handbook.

Here is a summary of my advice:

Hold up the mirror. While your boss may be lacking, make sure you are performing up to expectations. The old saying goes: When pointing one finger at someone else, there are three are pointing back at you.

  1. Look for and acknowledge the positives. Recognized behavior gets repeated. For example: If your boss takes time for you, say something like,” thank you for always taking time to answer my questions.” Try to build to the three positives to one negative ratio in communication. If there is still not enough progress in the relationship, then move to tip 3.
  1. Compliment/confront/compliment. This conversation starts with compliments, confronts the behavior, and then ends with a compliment. “I appreciate you making time for me and making sure the schedule is posted in time. You may not notice this, but it seems that when I bring things up at our meetings, you interrupt me. Is there a better way to bring things up? Thanks again for making time for me and listening to my feedback.” If this still does not improve the situation, move on to tip 4.
  1. Utilize the D.E.S.K. method. By now you have attempted to help your supervisor to no avail. Sadly, there is risk with this tip but the risk outweighs working in an unhealthy workplace.

I learned this method working at Parkside Medical Services years ago. It is called D.E.S.K. Set the stage with your boss by saying, “This is a serious conversation. I will appreciate you letting me complete my part.”

D – Describe the behavior of your boss that is troubling. “Larry, Thank you for your time. I would like to share my perception with you of the meeting yesterday. You listening until I finish will be appreciated. Yesterday at the division meeting, you asked me a question and did not allow me complete my answer and you commented ‘sounds like we don’t know what is going on’.

E – Evaluate how you feel and share how you wish to be treated. “When this happened, I was hurt and embarrassed. I also believe the comment and being cut off mid-sentence is not consistent with our standards regarding respect.”

S – Show and give examples of what is the acceptable way to work with you. “Larry, my goal is to do well and show that I can take feedback in a professional manner. I would like to describe the best way to provide this feedback to me, for I know we both want to achieve the same goal for the organization.”

K – Know. Let your boss know the consequences if things don’t change. “Larry, if we cannot work out a way to communicate in more productive manner, (then lay out what you are willing to do) this may not be the right place for me to work right now. This saddens me, for I very much would like it to work out.”

I realize that this could cost you your job. Unfortunately, there are still toxic work environments. In the long run, though, it is better to get the issue on the table and, if needed, leave a situation that is not healthy.

There are also times when it is necessary to reach out to others to report toxic work situations (like national help hotlines, or your employer may have ways to report such behavior, etc.). The higher up the problem is in an organization, the less likely the person is to be confronted.

Work can be hard enough without the overbearing problem of working with a difficult boss.