Bad Boss BS: “We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?”
Some bad bosses communicate badly. They make it harder to understand what they want. Their poor communication skills make aligning expectations difficult. But what are the some of the signs we can detect to help put together the pieces of a poorly constructed message and still get value out of it?
Know your blindspots
We’ve all got blindspots. Bad bosses probably have more than average. But even if we have a bad boss, there’s no guarantee that we don’t have blindspots of our own. In fact, when we have a bad boss there’s usually more chance that we’re missing opportunities to identify development areas — as the boss is probably unaware of them due to not paying attention to unable to communicate clearly about them.
Blindspots, as their name suggests, are difficult to notice. This makes feedback conversations about them particularly difficult, When we’re unaware of a development need, we’re more likely to react defensively when a boss raises the subject. If they’re not clear in their communication, we’re more likely to respond negatively.
When a bad boss makes it more difficult to engage with our blindspots, we’re the ones who suffer. So even if we have a boss who communicates feedback poorly or sparks defensiveness because of the way they phrase things, there are still things we can do to give ourselves the best chances to identify opportunities to improve.
Tuning for signals in the noise
We can pay attention to any feedback, even when it feels unfair and inaccurate. Maybe, in amongst the “noise” there are some valuable signals that we can translate into information. If there are recurrent patterns that we still find confusing or baffling, we can seek out trusted peers or others who know us well and explore it.
A bad boss might be incapable of framing a message in a way that we can usefully hear. There are lots of reasons why it’s hard to hear useful feedback from a bad boss. One reason is we’re likely to discount the feedback because we’ve observed their numerous weaknesses. They might also be such a bad communicator that there feedback is vague or self-contradictory. We shouldn’t really be required translate the imprecision and ambiguity of a bad boss into something useful. But there might be something in the information they share that we can still use.
You can also spend a moment now thinking about how you react to the very idea that you might have some blindspots and development needs that you’re unaware of. Is there something in your emotional reaction to that idea which might exacerbate the weaknesses of a bad boss? This automatic reaction could rob you of the chance of learning important information about your strengths and weaker areas of performance. Do you find the idea of learning about blindspots threatening, worrisome, exciting, interesting? Does it differ when you think about hearing the news from different people? If it does, seek out the people you trust. Take hypotheses to these conversations and approach them with curiosity.
Just because conversations with our boss about feedback and blindspots aren’t perfect, it doesn’t mean there isn’t some valuable information in there, waiting to help us. If we can do the hard work of pattern spotting and translation, even observations from a bad boss might be useful in helping us plan our development.