When Good Bosses Turn Bad

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In Coping with Difficult Bosses, Robert Bramson writes about the most common circumstances where normal people can look, feel, and sound like a difficult boss: crossed expectations, behavior blindness, and interactional accidents.

Crossed Expectations
Crossed expectations happen when an employee and manager expect different things, particularlly around how authority and responsibility are divided up, especially “how much” and “what kind.”

Bramson makes the following points regarding cross-expectations …

  • Managers and those they manage usually have widely different notations about their respective roles, and especially about “how much” and “what kind” of authority was handed over along with the tasks that have been delegated.
  • Both manager and managed proceed to disappoint each other by not fulfilling the other’s expectations.
  • Trouble starts when bosses and subordinates assume that the answers to “how much” and “what kind” are equally obvious.

Solution for Crossed Expectations
Bramson identifies the following solutions:

  • Engage your boss’s interest without seeming so critical that you provoke an angry, placating or guilty response.
  • Avoid bringing up past disappointments, since theye evoke defensive reactions.
  • Focus on “what’s the problem and how do we fix it?”
  • Present your boss with a list of tasks for which you believe your are responsible, stating the kind and amount of authority you believe you will need to achieve your goals.
  • Initiate with “I want to make sure we’re in sync about what my job is and how much authority I have”
  • Start by thinking through how your position ought to relate to others, taking pains to accurately reflect the level of authority you believe you should have.
  • Keep in mind that your purpose is a negotiated agreement that you both can live.
  • Encourage your boss to disagree with your view of the job and where there are differences, search for a middle ground.
  • In your wording, acknowledge that your boss has an interest in what you do, and a perspective different from yours, which you will want to consider when making your own decisions. Your statements might read something like this: “Consistent with human resources department policies, and after consultation with you, establish interviewing policies and procedures.”
  • Remind your boss that delegating certain important decisions to you does not eliminate your boss’s right to make those decisions final.

Behavior Blindness
Behavioral blindness is when the boss doesn’t know their negative impact on others.

Bramson writes:

“Behavior blindness is when people are remarkably unaware of their effect on others and especially how much their behavior bothers those that must put up with it. Such behaviorally blind people often have the best of intentions. They are no more out to hurt you than is a visually blind person who steps on your toe because she or he didn’t know it was there. They rant, rage, bulldoze, or waffle at their friends, coworkers, and families and they cannot understand why others are so unhappy with them.”

Solution for Behavioral Blindness
Bramson makes the following points regarding behavior blindness …

  • Make an appointment. Making an appointment communicates you have something important to say and reduces the possibility that your discussion might be interrupted.
  • Talk about any ambiguities you might feel. For example, start with “To be honest Mary, I’ve been feeling two ways about having this talk. On one hand, I think that it’s really important and it will help our working together, but on the other hand, I’m not really sure how you are going to react to what I’m going to say.” This sets them up to listen responsbly to what you have to say.
  • Help them save face. Stay focused on what needs to be changed, not on who is to blame, and if at all possible, provide a ready made excuse for any past sins, for example, your belief that your boss was unaware of how much you (and others) were bothered. The general form of your statement might be: “The reason that I’m going into this, Boss, is because I’m sure that I haven’t (or, I wonder whether we have) fully told you how much a few things that you do are interfering with my (our) work.”
  • Describe the difficult behavior. Having set the stage for candor and cushioned your boss’s ego, you are ready to matter-of-factly set out with your boss’s difficult behavior and the consequences to you, and to others, of that behavior. Keep in mind the twin rules for providing negative feedback: be specific and be descriptive. Psychologist Jack Gibb, who studied the conditions that promote defensive behavior, found that people became more self-protective when they were hit with generalized accusations.
  • Resate the behavior-blindness assumption. As soon as you’ve offered the substance of your feedback, immediately restate whatever face saving device you initially used. Something on the order of, “As I said, Boss, the reason that I’m going into all of this is that I was pretty sure that you didn’t realize how much it was affecting me and interfering with our productivity.”
  • Watch for acknowledgment. If you are successful in breaking through, your reward will be the sight of a boss whose visage – who’s entire demeanor – communicates shock, surprise, and even horror.
  • Provide support. Having penetrated your boss’s defensive wall, at least for the moment, you must now provide support in as many ways as you can. This includes: listen patiently to your boss’s justifications, acknowledge your boss’s good intentions, indicate you expect them to work on it, not perfection, make relevant suggestions, and indicate your willingness to provide feedback.
  • Try a dress rehearsal. As a way of lessening your apprehension, consider holding an abbreviated dress rehearsal of your part, either with yourself, or better, with a friend to take the role of your boss.

Interactional Accidents
An interactional accidents is when the boss’s ego is slighted in some way and it turns into passive aggressive or aggressive behavior towards the employee.

Bramson writes the following about interactional accidents:

“An interactional accident is when clues that we are important, competent, likable or powerful tell us that we have been ignored, dismissed, shamed, or in any other way taken lightly. We then retreat, attack, dissemble – sometimes all three.

We look for clues from those that are important to us that we are important, competent, likable or powerful. We look for the clues, by searching their faces, their behavior, and their words. It’s not what’s said or done, but the meaning or the motivation that was assigned to the words or actions.

An ideal response when an interactional accident occurs, is for the boss to move beyond the initial hurt feelings, meet with you, and check out intentions. It’s simply good sense to make sure their anger isn’t wasted on someone who was more mistaken than malevolent. However, this usually doesn’t happen and the interaction spirals downward in what Bramson calls a Recipricol Attack Spiraling Phenomenon (RASP.)”

Solution for Interactional Accidents
The solution for interactional accidents includes meeting with your boss, getting the issues out on the table, focusing on the intent of a great working relatinship and involving your boss in solving the problem. For a step-by-step method, see How To Repair a Broken Work Relationship.

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