If you work in the world, if you’re part of a manager-employee relationship, you’re inevitably going to be scratching your head wondering what’s going on. Wondering why your leader or boss is making the decisions she or he is making, wondering what you might be able to do to productively address the apparent problem. Mary Jo Asmus, President of executive consulting firm Aspire Collaborative Services, has four smart recommendations to help you and your boss get beyond the impasse.
HEART OF THE PROBLEM
Sometimes, the obvious problem isn’t really the problem, at all. Too often, I think, we tend to conclude the worst, which naturally exacerbates a sense of frustration, and cause us to miss the real problem. For instance, when we have nothing else to consider, we can only draw conclusions about the motivation for this or that action or decision based on what we see and experience. Under the worst circumstances, we might conclude that there’s some sort of malicious strategy afoot to undermine our best efforts. With a little patience and reflection, however, we might be able to conclude that, at least perhaps, the problem is about communications, or the lack of communications. That is, your manager has made some decisions, is working to achieve some larger goals and objectives, and has simply failed to communicate that.
There’s no doubt that engaging a manager about the need to communication is a lot less volatile than making accusations about something more nefarious. “Once you realize [understand the real problem],” advises Asmus, “you can sit down and address the issue directly but respectfully and see if you can come to a compromise that will satisfy both of you.”
Communication handled inexpertly can be volatile, especially when you’re engaging your manager, especially if the manager is new to the position or the organization. That last thing you need to suggest is that “the old way we did things before you arrived worked perfectly well.” You have to think through tact, while respecting the candor necessary to make your concern clear.
“You’ll want to honor and respect the person you are addressing,” advises Asmus, “even if you don’t like them.” Certainly. So how to begin? Ask a question. “A question is a great way to begin the conversation: ‘May I give you some feedback?’” Then, “Remember to do a lot of listening, and make them feel heard (because listening to someone honors them in a way that talking at them doesn’t).”
Deciding to engage your manager on the troublesome topic can take some courage. It is not easy to engage in what is either explicitly or implicitly a debate (even at its best, your discussion is a debate: you’re arguing for some solution to the problem). You might need some confidence builders. First, remember that communication between a manager and an employee is the most basic principle of leadership. And, to some degree (but not necessarily to a great degree), you’re owed clarity, so you can perform at your best for the team and the organization. Accepting that proposition helps (but be careful to not to come across self-righteous about it, come across as a martyr, because that approach will fail, and make things worse).
Second, advises Asmus, have a plan. “Some people . . . prefer to feel like they have a plan. So I make sure that I feel confident that I’m addressing the right issue,” Asmus writes. “I like to reflect and take a few notes while I’m thinking through what I need to say and maybe even ‘practice’ a bit with someone I trust to give me good feedback.” Indeed, knowing how you’ll open the discussion, and a good idea of where you want to take the exchange, is important. Otherwise, you may quickly find yourself on unfamiliar ground, not knowing where to go. Those conversations end like this: “Ok, well, thanks for your time!” And you walk out no better than when you walked in.
Know yourself. Know exactly what sort of comment, response, or reaction might spool you up, and, advises Asmus, know exactly how to sense when you’re getting flustered. “The trick,” explains Asmus, “is to notice when you get anxious, fearful, or angry. What happens? Where do you feel that emotion in your body (because that is where emotion begins)? You might feel your gut twist, or your throat close, or your temples pulse. All of these are good signs to take a deep, slow breath and make a choice: Do you want to express anger, clam up, or continue with the plan you created?”
In the end, be patient. Before jumping to the worst conclusions, give things time to unfold. Watch them unfold. And then, when you’re convinced that a problem needs to be addressed—for the good of the organization, for the good of your team, for the good of your sense of worth—then think through your approach, and advance in good faith.