Managing Your Out Of Control Boss

Manage your out of control boss

Do you have an out of control boss?  I’ve been one and worked for several.  Like most people, when I was out of control I didn’t know it.  I was working hard, trying to get as many things done as possible.  They were times of extreme urgency.  The most important thing was taking action and quickly.

When faced with times of stress our natural reaction is to fall back on our strengths.  When I get focused I am very good at taking action.  I have a strong work ethic and I am persistent, sticking at something until it is done.  The problem for me was knowing when more action wasn’t required.  At these times I would have been better served by slowing down, taking stock of the situation and plotting the best course of action.

In contrast, my action oriented approach would generate variability only complicating things.  My team had to play ‘Whack A Mole’.  Running from one fire to another, trying to keep up with me to extinguish the flames.  Does this sound familiar?

Now is not the time to be a victim

Our current times dealing with the impact of COVID-19 are unprecedented and extremely stressful.  There are no easy answers, instead we are living in a world of uncertainty.  These are the ideal conditions for the out of control boss to go wild and create all kinds of havoc.  I have already started seeing this in conversations with clients.  Just because your boss is out of control does not mean you have to be a victim of it.  You can and should manage upwards and help them get back under control.

How to manage an out of control boss?

I fall back on using powerful questions to slow the boss down and help them think.  This is the antidote to wanting to take more action.  Here are several questions you should always have at the ready.

What does success look like for you?  

This is an important question when you’ve received a request or a direction.  It is easy to give directions without thinking through what am I looking for.  Asking for clarity upfront will avoid frustration when you realize you didn’t read your boss’s mind.

How important is this compared to X, Y and Z?

When we are firing off new requests it is easy to completely lose sight of what we’ve already asked for.  This question encourages your boss to prioritize and take responsibility for the requests they are making.  This is especially important if you are already overloaded.

Tell me more about this, why is it important?

When we are in rapid-fire request mode it is easy to lose sight of why we need something done.  Encouraging your boss to reflect may end up identifying the request isn’t that important.  Alternatively, knowing why it is important can be critical.  If you need the help of others, knowing why it is important is key.

What happens if this isn’t completed on time?

If you ask ‘when do you need this by’, you will probably get a response like ASAP or yesterday.  Neither are helpful.  To avoid that kind of answer, ask a question to create an understanding of the dependencies.  Identify what is resting on completing this.  Maybe it isn’t time critical so you don’t have to drop everything and do it first.

The questions above will help any out of control boss step back and be an effective leader.  If they refuse to listen, is this the sort of leader you want to work for in the long run?

Comments (1)

Good topic Andy. We have all probably worked for one and probably been one, too. I have learned that many of my colleagues and bosses who struggled with this did not understand the difference between tactical and strategic work, i.e. being busy (tactical) and managing our business (strategical). Or they thought that attempting 20 tasks and meetings today and successfully completing 4 to 5 of them was better than working on only 10 and completing 6 to 8. This is no surprise given the cultures created in many organisations, especially large organisations with large offices. Everyone wants to be seen as working hard so they can climb the corporate ladder. I am wondering if and hoping that the current situation, where many are now forced to work from home, will help us and our bosses to realise how much more effective strategic work and results vs. being busy at work are. Now that our busyness is not so visible to our colleagues, we will be judged more by the work that we accomplish. For me, understanding this difference is a key component of true and professional leadership – and of success.

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