You & the boss

Consultant Nina Spencer answered your career questions

Globe and Mail Update – Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The workplace is dysfunctional, morale is in the tank — and in comes a new executive with the clout to fix things. His or her arrival could herald new hope . . . or destine the organization to more of the same.

The quandary is when and how to approach the new boss: Should you raise concerns at the first meet-and-greet? Or hold off a few weeks (knowing full well that others will be in there like a dirty, old shirt, seizing the first opportunity to advance their own agendas)?

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Not necessarily, says career consultant Nina Spencer.

According to Ms. Spencer, approaching the new boss with old grievances could backfire if not handled with care. She offered her rules of engagement in the Report on Business article last Saturday called How to tell the new boss what needs to change Related to this article Nina Spencer

Nina Spencer is a career consultant to entrepreneurs and major Canadian corporations. She is the author of Getting Passion Out of Your Profession: How to keep loving your living & come what may. Her workshops touch a wide variety of topics including: workplace leadership, interpersonal communications, adjusting to change, work-life balance, professional self-worth, employee and self-motivation, customer service excellence, team building, dealing with difficult people, conflict and stress management, presentation skills and, most of all, rebuilding workplace passion.

Ms. Spencer will answered your questions live Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Sasha Nagy, Business Features Editor, Nina,

Thanks for discussing everybody’s favourite person, the boss. Anyone that works in an office will have a conflict with the boss sooner or later. In your article in Saturday’s Career Coach column by Virginia Galt, titled How to tell the new boss what needs to change you offer some rules of engagement for dealing with a new boss.

Whether it is a new boss or not, it appears to me that judging from the early questions that have come in, that this is a hot button topic. I would like to kick this off with a hypothetical scenario. Suppose I work for a boss, let’s call him “Angus,” and I feel he has it in for a guy, let’s call him “Sasha.” How do I raise this with him, without appearing paranoid or defensive?

Nina Spencer:

It’s wise to explore whether or not Angus is even open to your feedback and observations. Trust your intuition.

If your intuition tells you it’s OK to raise this concern, ask for a one-on-one meeting with Angus. Share that you are sensitive to a particular situation you feel is mounting in the office or on the team between Angus and Sasha.

Try the DESC formula as you share your feedback with Angus, eg. Describe the situation as you see it/experience it (objectively); Express your feelings about it … how it is impacting you and, perhaps, others on the team or in the workplace; Specify–with clear respect for the hierarchy of the relationship between yourself and Angus–what you think would help make things better (come into this discussion with some suggestions for solution); Consequences–share how you feel addressing this issue in a positive way will help yield positive consequences for all (and consider listing what those positive consequences might be).

Remember, most of all, speak only of your experience of the situation (not of office gossip or what others have expressed or reported about the dynamo between Angus and Sasha) and what you have quantitatively/measurably observed, eg. I’ve notice that you yelled at Sasha in front of the team on three occasion this past week.

Darryl Youzefowich, of Mersin, Turkey writes:

I have heard it been said that all organizations (businesses included) are dysfunctional to some extent and that most business organizations are using an outdated nineteenth century industrial era business model. This business model is a top down structure with fear being a large part of how employees are to be motivated. Have businesses been moving away from this model (such as outlined in Steven Coveys The Eighth Habit) or is this still the way of most workplaces?

Nina Spencer:

Some business and management philosophies certainly die hard … change rather slowly, indeed. However, yes, the most enlightened … the best companies and organizations for which to work (both private and public sector) are embracing new philosophies and management practices. These are the companies that really do stand by their mission and values statements which declare, eg. our employees are our most important asset. These are also the companies who subscribed to the philosophy of the inverted pyramid when it comes to organizational structure, eg. the top of the org chart is the longest line of the triangle/pyramid and represents the frontline staff … as you move down the triangle, the lines converge until you have the pinnacle point at the bottom. The philosophy is this … frontline management exists to serve the frontline employees, middle management exists to serve frontline management, senior management exists to serve middle management and Presidents and CEOS, etc., exist to serve the senior management and the whole of the organization. And SERVE is the most operative word.

It’s a critical mass issue in the end … eventually all organizations will evolve from old philosophies and models to new, modern, 21st century approaches. There’s always those on the leading edge/cutting edge and there’ll always be stragglers. More and more organizations, these days, are coming on board and have been doing so for the past two decades. Cross your finger and pray for the rest! :)

D Mores, of Toronto writes: Dear Ms. Spencer,

Employees in our company have no problem giving me feedback on their concerns. I am a middle manager with no direct ability to address their complaints. They think I am a conduit to senior management or maybe that I am part of the problem. They offer complaints and negative feedback with no suggestions on how to fix the problem, nor do they show a willingness to see the big picture. They are also lobbying for decisions that favour their own departments to the detriment of the business. This is wearing me down. What can I do or say to them?

Nina Spencer:

There’s no doubt it about it, a convincing argument can be made for declaration that middle-managers have the toughest jobs in any company or organization! In this position you must take care of the people below you, answer to those above you and somehow live with yourself and your decisions/leadership style along the way.

When any of us complain about anything (personal or professional) there are always two components to the noises coming out of our mouths:

  1. the feelings;
  2. the content/specifically details;

Always respond with empathy to such complaints and address the feelings first, content second, eg. I appreciate that you are not always given the right tools or time frames in which to do your job…it must be frustrating and often stressful, too (empathy–feelings first). Let’s take a look at the mechanics of what’s actually happening and see what there is that we can actually do (content).

If they cannot or will not see the bigger picture, as a leader, it’s your job is to help them get it. Is there a chance that these different people and departments can get together once in a while, eg. a branch or regional pd day, so that they can introduce themselves and their various functions to one anotherget some up close and personal appreciation of what each person/department actually does to make this place tick and succeed and what they need from one another? People/employees who know and like one another are usually much more agreeable to helping each other out and being more understanding. This can be encouraged through greater opportunities to know one another.

If you’d really like to see what you can do about this, yourself (despite the fact you feel you don’t have any ultimate power or pipeline to senior management) read a terrific little/slim volume classic book by Edward Dubono, entitled The Six Thinking Hats . Then, apply the principles Dubono introduces to a think tank session with your team, to see what answers you can come up with together.

As well…see what you actually can do about talking with senior management to share both your team’s and your concerns.

Maritime Chick from the Maritimes writes:

I work in a gov’t dept which is on its fourth manager in two years. We have lost half our team four months ago, including the manager. The only thing that binds our team together is contempt for the new manager. He has taken no time to learn what we do, who we are, what our processes are, and what technology we use. We are highly dependent on efficient processes and technology. He throws around buzzwords ‘de jour’, asks our opinion then trumps it with his own decisions, and intimidates staff until they take his side. He tells us our processes are not good enough (without having done any analysis on them). Then he tells us he is a ‘delegator’ but then micro-manages things until we’re ready to scream. Things that are important to our department are completely ignored. There is too much bossing and not enough intelligent direction. I’m not a management newbie, and have had managment positions in other organizations. I just can’t believe how quickly this guy has taken our group off the rails. He’s clearly in it for himself and his salary, and the people do not matter at all. Morale was not high to begin with and now it’s at an all time low. I only wish our new boss was like our old boss. Any suggestions for handling this idiot, short of leaving the organization? We were running like a well greased wheel before he came along, and now we’re in jeopardy. I can’t even bring myself to make eye contact anymore. At what point do we go over his head?

Nina Spencer:

Oh dear, I do feel for you and your team mates! When it comes to such dilemmas there are really only four choices one can make:

  1. Love it/the situation in which you find yourself
  2. Leave it/quit and find anew employment opportunity
  3. Change it (or Change the way you think about it…or
  4. Stay and HATE IT!

Obviously you’re not loving it! You may not really be at the point of quitting…and why should you if you, otherwise, love your job (and, of course, there are often other logistics and economic reasons why people just can’t up and quit every time such a dynamic presents itself at work). That leaves CHANGE IT. Can you change it? Do you have any power of influence in this situation? Maybe yes. Maybe no. In that case…change the way you think about it. Consider your bigger picture purpose for doing this particular work (as opposed to some other job). Positively self-talk yourself through this time and situation…try the philosophy of, This too shall pass.

The WORST approach you can take is to Stay and Hate itit’s a killer and may make you sick, on some level, eventually.

Only you can judge the nature of your local and overall corporate culture. You ask about going over his head and reporting to the next level up your team’s experiences and feelings to your boss. Make sure that you’re cohesive as a team if you take this approach … that all will be onside as you move forth with your feedback. Use quantitative, objective facts and information as you report such feedback and concerns, rather than insults and derogatory comments. As you give feedback to the next level of management up, be sure what you, as a team, need more of (not less of). Point the way ahead and be sure to express what good things will come of a shift in your manager’s approach to your team.

My experience of senior management in government organizations is that they’re usually more enlightened and willing to listen to their frontline and independent contributing staff’s concerns and feedback than others may think. Good luck.

HK from Toronto writes:

I would like to know how to deal with a boss who has put me on probation for time management issues. She has previously mentioned that certain deadlines can be flexible if dicusssed and planned for in advance. However, whenever I try to approach her she is extremely reluctant to change any deadlines. I provide her with details on the work (based on the priority duties that we both agree upon each week) that I forsee taking up much time, yet she counters my points with comments such as “That only takes 2 seconds to do”, when work may actually take up to 2 hours, or 2 days, to complete! I try to manage her expectations by reminding her that things may come up along the way and that nothing takes “2 seconds” to do, but I am often not successful. She has placed other people who have worked for her on probation for similar issues, and I feel I am in danger of losing my job. How can I effectively communicate my concerns and need for flexible deadlines?

Nina Spencer:

First of all, are you certain that you are being as efficient as possible with your time management strategies? Before we point the finger at another it’s always a good idea to examine the self and make absolutely sure that the issue or concern isn’t, indeed, with ourselves. If you’re dancing as fast as you can on any given day or project, try a formal logging/journaling approach to the turn around time you required to complete on any project which your boss thought should have taken 2 seconds to complete.

To demonstrate your sincere concern for your bosses impression of your work performance (that you need to be more efficient with time-management), ask if she would support/sponsor your attendance at a time-management workshop (or arrange to have one come in-house for many staff to experience). At the very least , this would demonstrate to your boss that you take his/her feedback seriously, and at the very most , you might learn a few new tricks to prioritizing, communicating and negotiating your timelines and dealing with his/her demanding nature.

Sasha Nagy: Nina,

The comments have dried up, or the bosses out there are monitoring staff computer use & Either way, we have come to the end of our discussion. Thanks for your very detailed and thoughtful answers. Any closing comments?

Nina Spencer:

No matter what day it is, no matter how many years you’ve participated in the workforce (in frontline positions or otherwise), some days are definitely diamonds and others are rust. So, remember this: There’s only one thing that’s more contagious than passion and enthusiasm for the good work you perform…and that’s the lack of it! Do all you can to protect your professional energy and attitude at all timesespecially through rough patches.

NOTE: Nina Spencer’s newsletter Working Wisdom is available at her website, and contains numerous archived articles that may help answer reader questions.

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