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Winning Over a Controlling Boss

By Susan Hall

Winning Over a Controlling Boss

In past blogs, I’ve talked about the “Heroic” leader, a manager who feels over -responsible for the outcome of his/her team, to the point of unintentionally squelching their innovation and initiative. It makes for frustrated, underutilized talent, and an overworked boss.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people and they tell us what to do.”

Steve Jobs

This past week, I had three different client interactions with bright, talented people who were frustrated by a controlling manager. While all Heroic bosses are controlling, not all controlling bosses are Heroic. For example:

  • The CXO I met with recently shook her head and said “I’ve been working on this for months and am convinced we need to do this, but my boss has a different way of doing things. He’ll never go for this. He has a stake in the ground and no one can figure out why. ”
  • The EVP at one of my clients said “I was hired to develop our leadership’s capability to grow our business, but things just get bottlenecked with my boss. I can’t get any decisions made. How am I supposed to do my job?”
  • This Sr. Director said “ I feel like I’m being undermined. Why stick my neck out if I’m just going to be shut down.”

Does any of this sound familiar? These are real statements from real executives, sharp, talented people whose frustration was palpable. These are high performers with such low fulfillment that, if unchecked, may leave their organization and take their talents elsewhere.

  • The boss who feels they are responsible for all outcomes, and therefore, feel there’s too much risk in allowing their employees to share responsibility.
  • The boss that lets you do the work, but is always looking over your shoulder, asking to be cc’d, and informed of every detail.

The question is why?

  • They may be concerned about your competence.
  • They are concerned about their own competence. In other words, they feel insecure. They may give you the job, but not the authority or decision making power to get the job done.

So how do you work with a controlling manager?

1. First schedule a meeting with your manager. Face to face is always best.

2. Start with “I need your help. I need more clarity on my role and responsibilities to be more productive, and I think if we can come to an understanding it will benefit you by freeing up more of your time. “

3. Discuss what your manager needs:

  • What will be a satisfactory metric or measurement so the manager knows the job is being done well? You need to learn their parameters, measurements, and degree of oversight he/she requires.
  • Caveat: the manager may say “I need a daily call report on my desk by 5 PM every day.” Now, this may be the last thing you want to do or feel would be productive but you need to understand their expectations, as well as how this metric benefits the manager.

4. Share what you need. After the manager communicates her/his expectations, share yours.

  • You may need to negotiate the level of control based on what you need to be productive.
  • “I hear you saying you need this report daily because of X. I can show you X, and be a lot more efficient if I could do it THIS way. And here’s why…. What do you think?
  • Here is what is important to me…
  • Here’s what I need in the way of support…
    Note - This takes courage. It may take a few discussions. And you may need to earn their trust by proving that you’re following through.

5. Use “I statements”. Own your feelings. Own your business case. “You” comes across as an accusation and your manager may get defensive (especially if they are already feeling insecure).

6. Communicate with good intent. Keep the interpersonal issues out of it. This is about problem solving for increased performance and sanity.

7. Give yourself a time frame to turn things around. Set a date. Dr. John Grohol, founder & CEO of Psych Central, reports that research shows it takes at least six months to change behavior.

8. Of course, as a last resort,- there is the possibility that it’s just not a “fit”. But before pulling that trigger, ask yourself:

  • Have I given this my courageous best to conduct an open dialogue?
  • Did I try to clarify and meet expectations?
  • Did I communicate with positive intent?

As a good friend and colleague with 40 plus years of experience has said:

“You can’t fight crazy. Crazy always wins.“

This is a tough one, I know. What other thoughts do you have?

Published: July 10, 2015


Susan Hall

Vice President- Business Development & Performance Improvement

Susan brings over 20 years of experience working with global markets and organizations, helping them navigate through tough economic challenges while maintaining their margins. Since joining SEG in 1995, she has had the privilege of working with organizations that truly value the development of their employees and recognize the impact their people have on their bottom line results. Susan graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a double major in business management and speech communication. She has also completed course work toward her master's degree at Johns Hopkins University.

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