How to avoid friction with boss having contrasting working style
Suresh Rajagopal April 10, 2014Survey after survey has revealed that the most frequent reason for an employee quitting his/her job is a bad boss. It is easy (and even funny as the Dilbert cartoon strip often shows) to paint the boss as monster No. 1. However, it may not always be easy to quit a job. In which case, finding a means to arrive at a working relationship with the boss is critical.
In my experience of working and counseling, I see hope. Most of the problems with the boss typically arise when the boss and the person reporting to him have contrasting styles. This invariably leads to friction and bad blood with each of them claiming that the other does not understand his viewpoint. Resigning oneself to the aphorism that the 'boss is always right' may lead to cynicism and is not really a great way to create a win-win situation. A better way would be to deal with the situation in a positive manner.
Here, I analyse three different styles of functioning that bosses have which very often lead to conflicts. I aim to provide inputs on ways to handle the situation for persons reporting to such bosses in case their styles differ fundamentally from their bosses. Also, what can bosses do in such cases and what are the learnings for them?
Data Driven Boss: I once reported to a CEO with a very high IQ whose brain was wired to think better when he was presented with data, graphs, trends and detailed analysis. This had to be done even to arrive at simple decisions, which seemed a lot of unnecessary work to me. I also noticed that he tended to think poorly of his juniors who could not put up such analyses. They were perceived to be less intelligent or lazy by him.
I reluctantly started working as per his demands, but as time passed I realized that this was actually helping me develop presentation skills which were not my forte at all. Once I started doing it 'his way', I found dealing with him surprisingly easy and was able to wriggle out approvals from him for some tough decisions. Over a period of time, when we developed a level of comfort with each other, I could also joke with him about his 'paralysis by analysis' and convince him that elaborate presentations were not needed for all decisions.
If you are a 'hunch' or 'instinct' driven person and your boss is 'data' driven, you will have to work hard to succeed with your boss. Anyway, as you rise up the corporate ladder, mere instinct will not be enough to justify important and strategic decisions.
Over a period of time, what I have realised in dealing with such bosses is that they just cannot help but think the way they do. Maybe it is their education or their earlier work environment which has influenced their operating style.
What such leaders need to watch out for is that the analytics bit can be overdone. For example, in case of the CEO in question, I did notice that his detailed presentations with graphs and charts to the Board of Directors did not always go down well with them. Sometimes, they had difficulty in comprehending what was being put up and sometimes they felt that all the analysis was actually an attempt at obfuscation.
Too consultative boss: These are bosses who will assemble practically the entire office to debate a decision. This can be quite irritating as it appears that this working style is aimed at ensuring (or demonstrating) acceptance by all. They come across as indecisive and as procrastinators to their juniors.
For those reporting to them, it is important to identify what is it about the upcoming decision that is making the boss defensive due to which the boss prefers a buy in from all. A useful strategy then could be to discuss the decision with the key stakeholders, particularly with those whose opinions matter most to your boss. If these opinion makers are convinced, your job is almost done. As soon as the boss sees nods and acceptance all around, he feels comforted enough to make a decision.
If you are a boss of this type, maybe it would help to segregate your decisions into very critical and not so critical ones. You can then start to delegate the not so critical ones to your juniors without too much consultation. Over a period of time when you develop the comfort that the process is working fine, you can start slowly testing the waters with the slightly more important decisions while retaining the most critical and strategic with yourself.
Control Oriented Boss: Control freaks want to be informed about every micro decision that is taken in the organization including changes to the stationery vendor and the chaiwallah! Unfortunately, very often this is a personality trait and does not go away easily.
If you are reporting to such a boss and your operating style is one of working with complete freedom and providing freedom to your juniors, you are headed for trouble. You are likely to be perceived as too casual by your boss and someone who is too friendly with those reporting to him, thereby impacting your ability to crack the whip.
It is important to provide comfort to such a boss rather than assume that he will see reason and get used to your style. Just bitching that your boss is an old relic won't help. Investing in building a relationship with such a boss in a way that soothes his insecurities is the key to long term success. If you can identify some particular behaviors which irritate him, avoid those if they don't matter much to you. You will have to learn to lose some battles so that you can win the war.
In conclusion, it must be said that in the current environment, the cost of failure is very high for bosses and leaders. For those reporting to them, it is important to secure wins which are important for their bosses. As Michael D Watkins says in his excellent book The First 90 days, it is wise for an employee to negotiate success with his or her boss. Investing in this critical relationship is extremely important as it is your boss who sets your benchmark, interprets your actions for other key players and controls access to the resources that you need. As the author says, don't try to change the boss but instead take hundred per cent responsibility for making the relationship work. Have a discussion with the boss about your operating styles. Does he prefer face to face communication or email, what kinds of decisions does he want to be consulted on and which are the ones you can make on your own and so on. If you have a boss who doesn't reach out to you, make the effort to reach out yourself and get on his calendar regularly.
As we all know, more than any other individual, it is your boss who will determine your eventual success or failure. It is also important to note that many successful professionals have stated that they learnt more under a 'bad boss' than a good one.
(The author is co-founder and CEO of Mumbai-based Consumerge Wealth Managers which specialises in wealth management, HR consultancy and coaching. He has spent over 25 years in senior management and leadership roles.)