Bad Boss BS: “Why isn’t this working?”
How the roles we play and the systems that surround us can affect our performance and how we respond to feedback
Bad bosses are hard to like and admire. They can be frustrating, disappointing and belligerent. It makes it harder to build relationships with them. And it makes it harder to engage in conversations where the stakes are high. Feedback conversations are this type of conversation — they’re supposed to change things, and change can feel threatening and hard. So how can we overcome the challenges of hearing feedback from someone we don’t like or respect?
The roles we play
Our professional lives sometimes see us adopt a persona or identity that’s slightly different from what we might consider our true self. A healthy work environment will encourage us to bring our true self to work, and not feel as though we need to mask or deny aspects of our identity. But we may be able to use the idea of the roles we play at work to insulate ourselves from negative relationships, and occupy a more objective position to help us consider messages that might otherwise be undermined or difficult to hear.
A “boss” isn’t really a person, it’s a role someone plays. Sometimes, de-personalising the boss and thinking of what they say and do as coming from a role, rather than the individual can help re-frame interactions and make it easier for us to get something useful from them. There’s danger in this, it can diminish accountability — but as a psychological trick it can sometimes help us to get the most out of the relationship and interactions with a bad boss.
Some roles put people into conflict — boss relationships can fall into this category. Perhaps there’s a difficult message that the boss has to deliver which moves you out of the “normal” interactions you have. Or maybe you were friends with someone in the past and they became your boss. This relationship in particular is likely to suffer from a type of role confusion, where sometimes your interactions are friendly and at other times they’re shaped by the “boss role dynamic” which now exists.
The power of a systems lens
The roles we adopt at work are part of the system. As well as considering “roles” and reframing our relationship to a boss and the feedback they’re giving, we can also zoom out to consider the other parts of the ‘system’ you’re both a part of. Feedback conversations can be hard to navigate. But we can increase the chances of getting something useful out of them by stepping out of the content for a moment and considering the context as information is shared. If you’re having a hard time hearing a message from the manager, ask yourself these questions:
• Is this a difficult message to hear because of differences between me and the boss? (Personal)
• Is this difficult because of the roles we’re being asked to play? (Roles)
• Are policies, processes, the physical environment or other people making this a difficult message or reinforcing the problem? (Organisation)
The answers to these questions might unlock insights and help you get the most out of the feedback.
A systems lens can attribute less. It acknowledges the formal roles in the interaction. It also encourages you to consider the context — the policies and processes that are beyond the control of the boss. It’s much more likely to help you consider this bigger picture and the factors in play, rather than focus on only our perspective or interpersonal relationship. This helps us to think more rationally. It also results in better action plans, as we’re considering all of the facts that might be relevant to the feedback. This increases accountability and can encourage even a bad boss to consider the broader picture.
Bad bosses can sometimes bring out the worse in us, and there are two behaviours that we can default to when feedback is delivered badly. Blame absorbers do just that. They absorb the blame and responsibility, even when they don’t necessarily agree. This might lead to the shortening of uncomfortable interactions. But in the long run it’s likely to demoralise us, reducing our confidence and in some cases leading to resentment.
The other extreme that we can tend towards is blame shifting. Here, because we don’t admire, respect or rate the source of the feedback we dismiss it. We might shift blame back to the bad boss. Or we might try to move it to colleagues or peers. Blame shifting sees us convinced that “it’s all them, they’re to blame” and it’s an easy trap to fall into when we’re faced with bad bossing. But this pattern of belief and behaviour is ultimately exhausting and debilitating. It forces us into a victim stance which only serves to disempower us.
Even with a bad boss, it’s important that when things aren’t running smoothly we acknowledge our contribution to the situation. We can do this with performance issues. We can even do this with the bad boss relationship itself. This blog series acknowledges that bosses can do a bad job. But it’s also empowering us to recognise the extra efforts that we can make to supplement and support a bad leader or manager. A systems lens can help to take some of the heat and hurt out of bad bossing. It encourages us to acknowledge our part in the situation. And it helps us to more objectively understand the support we need to make the changes that feedback is supposed to achieve.