Use this trick to take control of your boss

A new study by leadership training company VitalSmarts showed what we already knew: discussions on performance at work can be a one-way street.

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All day, you have to “take feedback” (criticism) and “pivot” (totally re-do your project) without any real idea why, and with no way to give feedback to your boss right back.

A new study by leadership training company VitalSmarts showed what we already knew: discussions on performance at work can be a one-way street. They asked employees about their bosses’ biggest weaknesses – the ones they gossiped about with each other, but didn’t, of course, tell their manager. They fell into the following categories:

    • My boss is “overwhelmed and inadequate” (27%)
    • The “poor listener” (24%)
    • The “biased and unfair” boss (24%)
    • The “distant and disconnected” boss (23%)
    • The “disorganized and forgetful” boss (21%)

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And why don’t employees speak up to their bosses? Well, isn’t it obvious?

  1. Because it would offend their manager (47%)
  2. Because it would cause their boss to retaliate (41%)
  3. They are unsure as to how to bring it up (41%)
  4. Because it would hurt their career (39%)
  5. The workplace doesn’t doesn’t support people who speak up (38%)

Employees also scored complaints about their bosses that they wrote in for the study, some as terse as “ineffective report writing” to unprintable obscene acts. Here are a few of the stories they told, from the banning of the word “they” to 7 a.m. meetings:

“There was a merger several years ago. No one is allowed to use the word ‘they’. It’s rarely intended as a negative slam but in language one sometimes is describing ‘they’ based upon different locations. People warn each other about this but also roll their eyes in frustration.”

We have these weekly team meetings with no agenda and no notes.”

“The boss scheduled 7:00 am meetings in response to a request to share more information about what we do with each other and also to discuss the results of our ‘Workplace of Choice’ survey, LOL.”

As humorous as these stories are, Joseph Grenny, VitalSmarts co-founder and publisher of several books including the New York Times bestselling Crucial Accountability, says that even though employees can feel like powerless bystanders at work, it’s their job as to speak up.

“Our needs and our expectations are always our responsibility, independent of whatever power differential there might be,” says Grenny. “If I have needs, or if I have expectations, then in any type of healthy social situation, it’s my job to express those. I think too many of us are weaned on the idea that in an organization it’s our job to sit there, inert, until the boss signals that it’s safe to express negative opinions or to offer criticism.”

Take control of your boss

One trick for giving potentially speaking up while giving potentially uncomfortable feedback to your boss that Grenny suggests is giving her a reason to listen, then asking permission to give feedback.

“You could say, ‘Hey, there are some things going on between you and me that are making it difficult to get my work done, and I really want to perform in a way you’re going to be pleased with. But there are these barriers, and it’s a little sensitive to bring up – but may I do so?'”

“So I’ve given her a reason to listen,” says Grenny. “In spite of the fact that this might hurt a little for my boss to hear, perhaps she’s motivated more not just by protecting her fragile ego, but by achieving more, producing more, by having a successful team. So she’s probably going to give me that permission.

“So I give her a reason to listen, and I ask permission.”

“There’s something profound about asking permission to give feedback,” Grenny says. “It gives the person receiving it a sense of control.”


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.