Monthly Archives: November 2013

Five Ways To Manage Your Boss

No topic is more neglected in the vast management literature than this: how to manage upwards. Yet it is essential for any employed person to know how to do it. Mostly we will tend to go to two undesirable extremes: assuming the boss is an idiot and avoiding him or her as far as possible or else engaging in florid toadying. Here are five hints about how to do it better, all of which I have seen work reliably for my coaching clients

  1. Stop being deferential. This doesn’t mean being rude, in fact it is essential to be respectful. But if you see yourself as an underling you will be giving away your power and powerless people keep their heads down, and then their belief in their lack of influence quickly becomes a reality. Instead, put yourself mentally on an equal footing, remembering the possibility that boss needs you more than you need him or her. In fact as bosses become more remote from the hands-on business of the organization, it is likely that you will have valuable expertise that your boss lacks and needs.
  2. Take an interest in your boss’s non-work life. The more senior a boss is, the more likely they are to feel lonely and unappreciated. Many of my most senior coaching clients are mournful about their isolation at work. It is amazing how often people do not know where a boss lives, what the names and ages of their children are, or what hobbies and non-work passions a boss has. Ask. The answers may surprise you.
  3. Make giving and getting a reciprocal experience. When people are equal partners there is give and take and it is done generously without patronizing, fawning or expecting favours in return – though just giving makes a return favour more likely. Could you invite a boss to a party? Offer a valued introduction? Lend a book? Recommend a useful internet link? Offer a mini training session on a new piece of software?
  4. Express interest in their problems and dilemmas. Can a more junior person coach a more senior one? Certainly, if you know how to ask the right questions.
  5. Disagreement is not disloyalty. Many bosses, especially those who like control – which is almost all of them – can continue merrily on the wrong path, later commenting bitterly that no one ever queried their plans. The secret here is to agree while disagreeing. If you agree with the overall aim say so and say it firmly and clearly. Then and only then offer comments on how the boss is proposing to get there. Disagree on the means, not the ends.


Speaking Up is Hard to Do

When we want to justify decisions that later prove to be immoral, unpopular or unwise, we almost always rely on the rules-is-rules approach. ‘I was only doing what the contract said’; ‘Everyone else was doing it’, or ‘My boss told me it was OK’. Some famous 20thc experiments show how far this can go. In the Stanford Prison experiment, nicely brought up students chosen at random to be ‘guards’ quickly fell to seriously abusing fellow students, chosen at random to be ‘prisoners’, in the fake prison devised for the project. The experiment had to be stopped before it got completely out of hand.

Some recent events show how pervasive is the defence that ‘I was only doing what I was told’. The former BBC Director General Mark Thompson agreed a substantial sum to his deputy, Mark Byford, to ensure that this already very well paid manager managed to keep his mind on the job before he left – and large sums to other colleagues who were also on their way out. Mr Byford recently broke his silence in order to justify his payoff, pointing out that he had not been involved in the decision, that he had worked for the BBC for decades and was contractually entitled to the money. No one involved in those decisions at the BBC seems to have asked, ‘How would it look if this came out in public? Or, ‘Can it be right to pay people so much out of a publicly-funded licence fee?’ Or, ‘How can we justify the massive differential between our own salaries and those of the people actually making the programmes?’ It seems that an inner group of senior managers had so wrapped themselves in notions of their self-awarded ‘commercial’ value that they had lost sight of how it might play to people who were not part of that world.

The same principle is at work in what is now being revealed about the culture in the now-defunct News of The World, where allegedly, there were substantial financial rewards for obtaining a story through hacking people’s phones, whether of a celebrity or of a ‘civilian’, stories that could hurt those people and seriously compromise their privacy.

At Colchester General Hospital staff claim that they were bullied in order to falsify waiting times for cancer patients thus potentially putting the lives of those patients at risk. Earlier attempts to raise the issue were sharply dismissed by the hospital’s senior management as ‘a fantasy’.

Why is it so difficult for moral sense to prevail? Did anyone say in any of these organizations, ‘Could this be morally wrong?’ Possibly they did, but their voices could not be heard given the pervasiveness of the culture, the din of justification – and the fear, often well rooted, of reprisals.

But there seems to be some hope. The current uproar over Colchester General Hospital has happened because for once, whistleblowers could speak without fear of retribution. The scandal in the care home where vulnerable patients with dementia were allegedly flung out of wheelchairs or had beanbags thrown at them has been exposed for the same reason.

Hannah Arendt, historian of the Holocaust, recounts the story of the King of Denmark who announced that if Jews had to wear the yellow star then he would too. Denmark was the only Nazi-occupied country where this edict was never enforced. It takes moral and physical courage to speak up. Can we all be sure that we would? Can we face our fears about exclusion and punishment?

As a coach I have worked with clients who were agonizing in the guaranteed confidentiality in the coaching room about whether to report morally borderline behaviour as well as straightforward abuse, fraud, bullying or corruption. Mostly they did report it because once a moral dilemma has been voiced to someone else it becomes hard to ignore. Mostly these clients left their organizations, not always on good terms. Now, at least for clinicians, it has become a legal obligation (was it really ever not so?) to act on your Duty of Care. And whistleblower protection is guaranteed. Good.

Faking Rapport

I am in that hallowed temple of white goods, John Lewis. My quest is to replace a leaking, hopelessly inefficient American-style fridge-freezer that has clearly had its day. I have no idea why one model is more than double the price of another or what features I should be looking for, since the world of fridge-freezers has clearly moved on since 2001. Such is the competition for a salesperson’s expertise on these subjects that JL has a queuing system. As the customer, you wait meekly until your name is called.

After 15 minutes it is my turn. But my salesperson does not look happy. He forces himself to do eye contact and asks me in a slightly sulky and notably lacklustre way how I am today. Because of how the question is asked it feels impertinent and I am tempted to give some kind of tart reply but somehow find the self control not to. We drift to the fridge-freezer section where he languidly waves an arm at a few appliances and asks, again forcing himself to give some kind of grimacing smile, what I am looking for. In the world of rapport, connection cannot be faked. I find myself matching him all right, but I’m matching sulk for sulk, sigh for sigh, reluctance for reluctance.  No surprise then to find that although I entered the shop determined to make and pay for my choice, I left without doing so, feeling irritable and disappointed.

All coaches, even the most saintly, know that we can be guilty of the same thing. Maybe we do a better job of disguise but we never fool our clients, they spot it all right. How do they know? Here are some signs

  • Playing with jewellery, fingers, hair, phone; foot-tapping
  • Glancing at the clock too frequently
  • Slouching; an air of tiredness or vagueness
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Smile is a mouth-twitch and does not reach the eyes
  • Impatience – interrupting in order to give platitudinous advice.

More importantly, why does this happen? One obvious set of causes is external. Some distracting event has happened that threatens equilibrium and confidence – a disagreement with a boss or partner, a personal crisis about performance or money, a worry about a loved person. Experienced coaches learn to anticipate and manage the way this kind of concern can intrude and if it is something really serious will cancel a session, briefly explaining why, rather than risk damaging a client’s trust.

It’s the internally-triggered stuff that is much harder to spot and to control. You find that you don’t like this client or that you have a strongly negative reaction to their opinions. You find yourself harshly judging their appearance or behaviour. You drift off while they are in the middle of some important story. You feel frightened because you are too junior or bored because you are too senior to coach this person, or you find that you are anticipating what they are going to say before they say it and then offering some kind of pat reply along the lines of having seen it all before.

If so, this is about you not the client and the coaching will come to a swift end, usually because the client simply evaporates: fails to make another date, never completes their programme and never explains why. Ask yourself what your responses to the client tell you about yourself. Ask whether you should have taken this client on in the first place. And get yourself to your supervisor pronto and invite them to ask the killer questions that for certain you will have been avoiding asking yourself.