Bad Boss BS: “I didn’t say that…”
Yesterday I wrote about two types of bad boss behaviours connected to decision making. Rigid rulers don’t change their mind, even if their decision is no longer appropriate or effective. Decision dodgers avoid decisions altogether. This reluctance often hinders progress — especially if they’re unwilling to make a decision but also reluctant to delegate it. Another type of bad bossing occurs when bosses change their mind, but don’t acknowledge it. I call this type of bad bossing ‘decision denial’ and there are two main flavours.
“No, I didn’t mean that”
Some decision denial happens because of bad communication. The boss doesn’t think they’re changing their mind, because they’re not. They just didn’t manage to communicate the initial decision clearly and so in re-stating it, it looks like the decision has changed. It’s another example of a boss with a big, old blind spot.
To help this type of bad boss you can use clarifying techniques to build more shared understanding. Use active listening whenever a boss approaches a decision. Listen intently, restate your understanding, check areas of ambiguity. This is just good listening. Don’t be afraid of sounding like you don’t understand. If you’re focused on clarifying, it will look like diligence not denseness.
“No, I didn’t say that”
There’s a difference between a boss communicating so poorly they need to restate decisions and directions vs. denying they said or meant a thing which was clear and/or confirmed.
Let’s leave aside professional euphemism for a sentence. Some bosses are liars. It’s hard to know what to do about a liar. And it’s a serious accusation to throw about in the workplace — especially towards a boss. Being lied to feels awful, so we’re likely to react emotionally and want the boss to feel bad. But like most bad bossing, if we can get over the emotional revulsion and distress, we can apply analysis to try to arrive at an action plan for our response.
Motivation — what is the lie designed to achieve? Disguise incompetence? Maintain authority? Inspire or maintain confidence? Protect someone else? Lying about a decision is never acceptable (though there might be times when it’s legitimate for a boss to withhold information — which can sometimes feel like a lie). But understanding the motivation might give you some clues for what to do about it.
Impact — what’s the impact on you? Lying will always erode trust in a relationship. It will suggest you should be questioning other things the boss says — which hugely increases the cognitive load you’ll experience during and after interactions. Are there ways to mitigate the impact?
Like lots of unhelpful behaviour, it’s unlikely that a lying boss is going to change without a good reason. There are a few ways you can provide a motivation to change:
Lying is not appropriate in the workplace. And luckily lots of workplaces give you the chance to collect evidence. Just like with a boss who isn’t communicating clearly, clarifying what a boss has said can be useful with a “deceptive decision denier”. It creates an evidence trail. If your boss is prone to decision denial, confirm directions and decisions in writing and ask them to correct you if you’ve misunderstood.
Although it might feel challenging, there are ways to talk about “lying” without using that word — which will likely only trigger defensiveness or aggression. Talk to a boss about what you’ve heard and what you’ve seen — describe any gaps between “behaviour and impact” or “expectation and reality” and describe where your expectations came from. Some bosses will use this as useful feedback and develop other strategies — consciously or unconsciously — around decisions they want to revisit. Try to engineer a face-saving way out of the accusation of dishonesty. Try to convince yourself that your objective is to improve the situation, not to make the boss feel bad about being a deceitful decision denier.
Of course, some bosses will continue to deny — they might even go as far as to claim that your restatement or clarification isn’t clear or fair, as they attempt to turn you into a “Didn’t mean that” denier. This type of manipulative insincerity might mean they’re irredeemable and it’s time to…
Find another boss
A boss who lies about decisions on a repeated basis is a terrible boss. They’ll undermine your confidence in the organisation and your contribution. They leave you second guessing everything. That makes it harder to do your job. And there’s always the chance that if they need to lie about you to survive, they’ll throw you under the bus to save themselves. So maybe, a lying boss is one of the red lines that suggests we should move on and find a new boss.
If you’ve got an experience of bad decision making behaviours when bossing, or more examples or strategies of lying bosses and what to do, please get in touch and share.
You can participate in this series by sending a message to @danramsden or completing this contributor form. I’m hoping to build a community around the experience of bad bosses — and share advice and practical adaptations so that we remain effective.