Bad Boss BS: “Yeah, but what about the size of the font?”
Why do some bosses change subject during difficult conversations, and how can we cope when they “switchtrack”
A feedback conversation is like a journey. Someone approaches us with a suggestion and when they do it well, paint a picture of a destination and provide the motivation and means to move towards it. But bad bosses can often get lost along the way. They add in detours and lead us into danger. So, what are some of the signs that a bad boss is leading us astray during a feedback conversation, and how can we try to pull them back onto the right road.
When some bad bosses have a message to deliver they plough on head-first, ignoring whether we’re actually hearing what they have to say or not. This is bad and it reduces the chance of us hearing their message and responding usefully. But there’s another way that feedback conversations can veer towards failure.
In Thanks for the Feedback Heen and Stone describe how sometimes, people purposefully or subconsciously introduce a new or unconnected subject or accusation which changes the flow of the interaction. Here’s what it might sound like:
You: Could we have that conversation about the report that I submitted last week? I was worried about the finance section.
Bad Boss: Yes. There were some issues with the report. I didn’t like the font you chose.
You: But did the analysis in Table 1 tally with your expectations.
Bad Boss: It was a very small font and quite difficult to read.
This is a silly example. But it illustrates how two people can be engaged in two separate conversations that sound like one. They both have information they want to share. But they’re different bits of information, focused on different subjects. As they take turns, the conversation switches track.
When we’re talking about feedback this can happen often. It can increase frustration as people continue to talk at cross purposes. We can even switchtrack in our heads. While a bad boss is focusing on one thing, we might be blinded by resentment or focusing on thinking through their failures.
Switching track is a conversational move — it moves the focus of the conversation from one subject to another. But it does itin a way that isn’t consistent with the expectations of both parties. It can happen all the time. A bad boss begins a conversation about us leaving work early yesterday but their accusatory tone implies they think we don’t care about work. The boss wants to talk about why we left. We want to talk about why they’re questioning our commitment. Other switchtracking might occur when we think there are more important things to talk about. We might be right. But without agreement and a shared objective in a conversation, we’re less likely to reach a useful destination.
Switching track is a conversational move, so we can counteract the negative effects by employing other “process moves”. Stone and Heen suggest four skills we can use to navigate conversations:
• Listening. It sounds obvious, but actively listening is the key to productive conversations. Good listening gets the most data out of the information on offer. It hears the words, decodes them and then considers what they mean in the context of filters or distortions we might have added to the originally intended meaning.
• Asserting makes statements. It lets the other person know how we see things. We can assert with aggression or assert with curiosity — and there are a thousand different flavours between these two extremes. How we share our version of reality with a bad boss can make it more or less likely that we’ll arrive at a shared reality.
• Process moves (management) see us step outside of the conversations and make observations about the interaction. “I’m sorry, I’m getting defensive. Can we pause for a moment.” is a process move. They allow us to look at how an interaction is progressing and buy us time and space to consider strategies to pull it back on track.
- Problem solving helps us build an alliance with the other person to agree how to move a conversations forward. The combination of process moves and problem solving is sometimes required in feedback conversation.
A poorly managed feedback conversation can see each person switchtrack multiple times. This makes the conversation harder and the likelihood of it resulting in positive change reduces. But though process moves we can identify this pattern and then work with the bad boss to prioritise issues and give the interaction a more sensible structure.
Name that tune
Conversations have an emotional soundtrack. When we sit down for a feedback conversation we bring our current emotional state to the situation — we might feel nervous, excited, apprehensive. This will frame the first things we hear. Then, as the conversation progresses the “music” might change. It might get focused and meditative or wildly disordered. This will colour what we hear and how we react. Emotions distort feedback as it's delivered – they exaggerate and accentuate what we hear and how we respond. When we feel threatened in a feedback conversation we’re more likely to switchtrack — this is more likely to spark a reaction of silence or violence from a bad boss and the conversation becomes much more difficult.
Good feedback conversations are full of curiosity, as both parties try to uncover the “reality” of the situation and build a shared plan for what to do about it. When someone switches track, this positive outcome becomes much less likely. We can develop, use and balance our skills in listening, asserting, managing and problem solving in conversations to ensure that even if our boss is prone to switching track, we can get conversations back on the most useful path and navigate them to a useful and positive outcome.