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Practical Middle Management Tips: What to Do When Your Boss Thinks You Suck Like a Hoover

Photo by Therese F

Photo by Therese F

Don’t you just love it when you think you’re working your fingers to the bone, you’re doing the best job you can and your boss lets you know that you are the Hoover Windtunnel of suckage?

If you’re more fortunate than I was for the vast majority of my career (and my clients and friends careers), you worked for someone who took an active interest in you and made it a point to provide feedback in a way that didn’t encourage you to feel like you were dog crap on the bottom of her shoe… and so this post won’t apply to you unless any criticism makes you feel like a worthless bum… in which case, keep on reading.

For the rest of us, who had that special someone who felt that their anger and frustration was justification to dump all over us, here are five things you can do to stay on the track. Because what usually happens is that this sort of criticism derails us, and then we are no good for anyone, including the boss who just humiliated us and more importantly the other people who depend on us to put forth our best.

Here’s one thing we know about those who rise above the “managewich” and those that don’t. The ones who rise above, whether they go on to be executives or successful business owners, are the ones who rise above. That is, they are resilient. Fortunate for you and me, this can be a learned skill. If we can take it one step above and be resilient and glean some knowledge, that puts us in the top percentile, yes?

There really is nothing more disheartening than being meanly criticized when we’re exhausted, stressed and are running around trying to effect change on things that are out of our control. The first place most of us go is feeling underappreciated, pissed off at the lack of understanding or support, and where did this a$$hat learn his leadership skills anyway?

Haven’t you noticed that no one wants to tell you what you’re doing right or what they want you to do in concrete terms to make things better?

So, my friends, it is up to you.

The first thing to do is keep your cool. Upset is the enemy of clear thinking, and as long as we have to sit here and take it, we might as well have it work to our advantage if we can.

How do you do that? However you can. From brain-based coaching we know this: any stress triggers the flight or fight response in the brain to some degree, which shuts off your thinking frontal lobe to some degree. You have less than 90 seconds, sometimes much less. My clients learn to recognize that anger or stress response quickly, and nip it in the bud. Some ways we have worked on that together is to prepare with positive self talk. We also practice with breathing. I’ve been known to excuse myself and take a calming walk (in which I do not brood over the topic at hand).

The second thing to do is get to the truth of the matter. What is your boss really saying?

This requires major active listening. You are now going to assume the role of the coach and go into curiosity mode. This means acknowledging the frustration, and it means asking questions. What is it that they are really mad about? Ask for specifics.

Here’s a bonus note: many times bosses are not as mad about what you did or didn’t do. They are angry about the outcome. If that’s the case, you may have an opportunity to reframe the thinking.

I’ll give you an example. Before Hurricane Rita, the city of Houston ordered an evacuation of certain areas. There was a low-lying nursing home that complied with the order. The bus that came was defective, but the nursing home had no way of knowing that because bus companies are regulated by the state. The bus caught fire, and because there were oxygen tanks on board from the elderly patients, the bus exploded. Based on that outcome, should the nursing home evacuate the next time they are in the direct path of a hurricane?

Obviously, most business decisions aren’t that clear or dramatic, but hopefully you see the opportunity. if you leave the table not knowing what’s really going on, then you feel bad and get little or no benefit.

The third thing to do is avoid the urge to defend yourself or label. It shows in your body language, and then you put your boss in the position of justifying her anger/frustration. Justifying doesn’t usually produce truth-telling, whereas curiosity often diffuses the anger. Your most powerful phrase, “Help me understand so that we don’t have to have this discussion again.”

The fourth thing to do is take the information you’ve gathered from your curious questioning and determine what’s useful. You may have to step away from the table to think about it. Even if there is nothing in the conversation that’s useful, the one thing you do know is that your boss is mad at you. That’s something to resolve.

The last thing to do is to come to some sort of conclusion. This is where many of us just fall over flat. The boss may be embarrassed at her outburst and not want to address it again, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t still mad. Of course, we’d just like to move the heck on. The problem with this approach is that it weakens the relationship. More than likely, avoidance also reduces our ability to perform because we may not know what’s really wanted (which creates stress, indecisions, and “wrong” decisions). It’s much better to clear the air.

This is the hard part, because it involves you explaining your thought process in a way that doesn’t rile the boss. We spend a considerable amount of time on this in the Improve Performance NOW! program, in both individual and group coaching. Another thing we know from brain-based coaching…behavior change results from active learning, not reading. If you think you’d like to improve this aspect of your performance, I invite you to schedule a complimentary consultation today.

Be Your Best You Today,


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