Bad Boss BS: “The map is not the territory.”
How can drawing “maps” of different skills and skillsets unlock insights to help us when we find ourselves with a bad boss or complex colleague relationship?
During April, the Bad Boss Blog Series explored how strengths can become weaknesses and potentially the source of bad bossing behaviours. I introduced a way of visualising behaviours sitting on a scale or spectrum. And how this ‘spatial’ thinking can suggests new behaviours to moderate and improve a bad situation. I wrote about how intentionally developing competence in an area can act as a counterbalance for bad bossing. A boss can use this method to help moderate an unhelpful natural preference. Or we can intentionally develop competence in an area to supplement the weakness of a bad boss.
I like both words and pictures. So I like to “map out” competence and use the ideas sparked by spatial arrangement to initiate insights and suggest strategies for success. Representing competence spatially loses lots of the nuance of working in the real world. But that reduction of complexity is sometimes the secret to spotting the most useful information. It might also help people to report their own preferences in a more instinctive way, revealing insights that if you asked them in another way you might not hear. Using maps, we get to “see” the shape of competence and this new way of looking at situations can reveal things that might otherwise stay hidden if we only used words.
I’ve mapped out my own competence and performance on a range of scales. I do the same for important working relationships. This helps me to better understand myself and other people. And it helps to assess compatibility between me and colleagues. It can help me to analyse why some working relationships feel easier or more productive than others. And can help me to assemble teams and partnerships with the best chance of “natural” compatibility.
Asking whether our maps match, whether the make-up of a team makes sense and where points of friction are most likely to occur will help any team or collaborative activity. For example, how might a team work if it was full of people who tend towards introversion? How might a team operate and feel if there was only one person with a preference for introversion? A map can reveal the levels of preference or skills within a group.
Drawing a map needn’t take long. I’ve used the type of scale I introduced in the post about ‘Strength-Weakness pairs’ as a warm-up activity in workshops and project kick-off sessions. A good example is asking people to mark a point on a scale to describe how comfortable they are with ambiguity. This can kick off a conversation around preference. And it will also help the group to understand adjustments they might need to make to support each other.
Map the territory
There are various ways of constructing this sort of “map”. You can simply estimate it — write a few different competencies, skills or behaviours down and make an instinctive judgement of where you and other people sit. You can collect feedback from colleagues and use the insights you get to generate further maps. You can make a spreadsheet and use the features to track responses over time and between context — it will also generate the charts for you. You can add contrasting pairs and use the insights to think about development opportunities or to reflect on sources of friction in a relationship or group. And you can draw maps to describe the shape of the boss — and then consider whether you can think of ways to change the shape of any of the maps (and the reality they describe) to make life easier and more productive.
The Bad Boss Blog Series started as a way to explore relationships at work. Hierarchies often introduce formal power relationships between colleagues. And even in “flat” organisations, there are always power dynamics at play in our interactions. The Bad Boss Blog Series is written provide useful ideas and practical solutions to help optimise the most important relationships in our professional life. Having a difficult working relationship when someone in the situation has formal or situational power can be miserable. It can also compromise the quality of our work. It’s easy to feel disempowered when our boss is the source of this type of difficulty. But there are always things that we can do to improve a situation, even when the problems stem from a boss. Maps are a cheap and easy way to try to spark fresh ideas to identify problem and solutions.
Three sources of bad
Our relationship with a boss can be “bad” for different reasons. Now that we’re four months into the Blog Series we’re starting to see patterns in the way a boss can be bad for us. I’m starting to think of these as three categories of badness — competence, confidence and compatibility:
- They’re just bad at some things (and some things are just unacceptable).
- Their badness is due to the relationship between confidence and competence — there are ‘behavioural’ aspects to the badness
- Our relationship is complicated and compromised by our own preferences and ways of working.
When we have a bad boss, it’s good to work through this list. Is there an unsolvable problem? Do your values compete? Are they violent — through words or actions? Do they actively compromise your ability to do your job or grow and develop? In these cases, it’s worth trying to find a new setting away from the boss.
But a lot of the time, a bad bossing situation can be improved by reflecting on the source of the problem and then working on solutions. It’s useful to think about the ingredients of competence and incompetence at an individual level — our own, our boss and the people we work with. But we get most value when we consider the relationships between people. This helps us zoom out. It encourages a systems lens — which in turn increases our chances of finding a ‘solution’ or strategy that will work. A systems-lens also de-personalises feelings of resentment or blame, which is also likely to improve our chances of making progress. Maps can help with this zoomed out, more abstract thinking.
People are more complicated than we sometimes appreciate. And a bar chart or a radar chart will never unlock the mysteries of the human soul. But sometimes, simplifying situations and finding another way to explore compatibility can give us insights we would miss if we stuck to just using words. So, the next time you’re considering strengths and weaknesses at an individual or group level, consider whether a map or visual representation might help.