What if Your Boss is the Problem?

It is not uncommon that the head of the organization needs to change in order for the organization to reach it’s full potential. While the defining the problem is typically far more complex than pinpointing the influence of one individual, one individual can certainly be the key for success.

What happens when your boss  doesn’t recognize that he or she needs to make changes in order for the organization to achieve desired outcomes?

  • Disconnect between higher management and the front-line -In some of the organizations we work with, higher management does not listen to middle management or to end employees. One such example is a high-tech company we worked with three years ago. The company quickly grew  from a start-up to a mid-sized company, with teams all over the world. Managers were raised from the lines and while they typically had excellent professional skills, they had little to no management training, which was made worse by the fast growth (many more junior employees  were promoted faster). This created all kinds of problems from senior executives having to take on a variety of roles which compromised their performances, to poorly managed meetings and lack of focus on goals and eventually to communication breakdowns and lack of “followship.” Employees and executives tried to voice their frustrations and concerns. HR constantly reported complaints about the performances of manager x or y and for the need of training or, basically, some sort of change. Still, the CEO of the company did not see the need to review the situation or do anything differently. Sometimes it may seem like the only solution is to wait until the pain is great enough for the CEO to acknowledge it. Pain is a good motivator for change, but there are other ways.
  • One-sided suppressing boss – I can’t think of too many examples of past clients in which the boss was the know-it all-one- man-show but one example stands out. This CEO of a medium sized software security company brought in A LOT of funding, both his personal capital and investors’ funding. Projects were many and priorities shifted quickly and often, making it very difficult for teams to develop products. The CEO surrounded himself with “yes sayers.” In the rare instance that a more critical thinking executive was recruited, any ideas for improvement that were followed by any kind of conviction on their part, led to their speedy termination. In these situations making any changes in the organization may seem nearly impossible, but if designed correctly, needed change is very possible.
  • The problem is with them, not with me – This is perhaps more common than we’d like to sometimes think. It’s true for CEOs as it is true for middle management as well as end employees. What do you do when the key person in a position of influence to improve results is convinced it isn’t him or her who needs to change, but that other people need to change instead? I could probably share tens of organizations in which this was the case. Naturally, insisting that the boss is blind and that he or she is the problem doesn’t work so well…of all three examples, this is the easiest to solve, but you will need to think of the solution in slightly unconventional ways.

When I began as a consultant – I don’t want to think how many years ago – the textbook solution was to confront the leader and get him or her to own up to their broken pieces. We would invest weeks in developing a comprehensive assessment, and then we presented it to the leader or leaders in the organization. It was a futile attempt to convince people who are sure you are wrong.

Granted, sometimes you are wrong. Sometimes the boss is the only sane voice in an ocean of lazy, self serving people. I’ve seen it happen, which is why I’m careful when I say the boss is the solution, even if they are not the problem (though we could argue the boss is eventually responsible for recruiting them and establishing the culture and performance standards that made it all possible). But in most cases, when employees and middle management share   vital feedback that isn’t heard (or when they are too scared or apathetic to share it to begin with), when you lose top talent too frequently, or when senior executives leave after brief careers next to the “great dictator,” to name just a few signs, it’s really the boss who needs to change.

Three action plans work better than any other when it comes to changing your boss:

  1. Start small. Change agents generally look at the whole picture first. That’s a great practice of course, but when the boss is blocking needed changes, it typically doesn’t work to try to promote a big scale change. Considering that in all likelihood the boss doesn’t see the problem and the solution in the same way you do, the first step should be to change his or her perception, not to insist you are right.
  2. Generate a local success, supported by measurable results. This would prove your point and only then do you present the need for change to the boss. One of the most common failing strategies I see is trying to reason with such a boss before generating concrete results. Every time I supported (or led) a change effort that failed, it was because I tried to get a boss to see things from another point of view before I could prove that my point of view would lead to concrete results. Select a team that can showcase success, preferably a team in which the start results have room for great improvement, and show growth.
  3. Have the boss mentor the change. Sometimes the boss sees the problem differently than you do and he or she is more than willing to invest in mentoring middle management to great results. This is not as common, but when that is the case, there is a great opportunity to influence dynamics, processes and interactions. The key here is to find  a way to focus on the goals from the boss’s perspective, but change processes and dynamics that block the organization in general.

In our work with organizations, like in the case of the above high-tech and software security companies, these three strategies alone can go a long way. The CEO of the high-tech company approved a small one-team pilot to develop a specific team leader who showed promise but had reviews that caused concerns. That small change, coupled with clear, measurable and tangible results convinced him to take another small step and that led to a natural transition.

Getting the CEO of the software security company to change his interactions with his team was a more delicate effort, mainly because it required starting with very high resistance. The key was to start change on small budgets (so that they won’t require his approval) and to have someone else in a senior position quietly manage the needed changes. Instead of trying to argue with the CEO about generating greater focus and reducing the frequency of changes to allow steady long-term product development, the change focused on working with teams to create a balance between addressing new needs and investing in development. This was coupled with constant communication about the important development work team x is doing side by side with their routine work, which gradually started to make sense to the CEO. It took years of small local changes before this particular CEO was willing to go the next step and start looking at the environment his communication style was creating, but in the meantime the company could stay successful.

Getting the boss to change can be tricky and each case should be carefully studied before any recommendations are made. That said, it’s not uncommon and there are ways to make needed changes by using methodologies that lead to measurable, concrete results.

Get in touch. Let’s talk about how to successfully make changes when the boss is blocking needed outcomes!

Comments are closed.