On my way out of a meeting, I ran into a banker whom I had advised earlier, scowling into his drink in a quiet corner of the bar. A cursory “All good?” on my part unleashed an angry rant—did I know that his boss was the most overbearing, obstructive, conniving, insecure man in the banking industry (and this was the polite version), and that he was going to quit, right now, and to hell with the consequences. I sighed and ordered coffee and told the driver not to bring the car to the porch just yet.
I let him rant about the recent run-ins he had had with his boss. After letting him vent for a while, I gently suggested he delete the angry, I’m-outta-here email he was jabbing out on his BlackBerry and just take a few deep breaths. Yes, of course he should quit if he was that unhappy, and nothing and no one is worth taking abuse for. On the other hand, he had invested years in his career and while he might well choose to walk away eventually, he needed to navigate this with dexterity and dignity, rather than walk away defeated and angry.
Practicality over pride—so, down to tactics.
To start with, the client comes first. I advised him to keep doing his job, diligently. Leaving in the middle of a transaction would not reflect well on him, no matter what.
Head on : If you have issues with your boss, try and address them directly.
After he cooled down, I suggested he try to analyse the situation. Try to remember that the boss is a person and not a one-dimensional caricature of Dilbert’s pointy haired boss. So what was really the issue? Was it a one-off altercation? Or was the boss always abrasive? Did he flare up during stressful events? Was he under pressure professionally or personally? To analyse and understand his motivations and likely behaviour patterns was essential before taking any decisions.
Then, I advised him to try and address the issue directly with his boss. However, this required some tactics too. Reflect objectively on what the boss’ version of events would be. Analyse what he himself could be doing differently or better in the job. If appropriate, take responsibility for his mistakes, even if the boss had overreacted to the situation. Ask for specific feedback, for developmental advice. There was no guarantee that the conversation would go well, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I also suggested he seek out other mentors in the firm—for feedback, tactical advice, as well as for creating a broader network of internal sponsors, should the need arise.
If there was an ongoing pattern of tyranny, I advised him to document instances, just in case. Also, in keeping with good governance in general, to take notes, summarize meetings and action points and email. Ask clarificatory questions and always keep the boss updated real time on progress, preferably in writing. And keep verbal or email duels to a minimum.
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Should the situation become openly untenable, go to the boss’ boss, but try to avoid putting the super-boss in a situation where he has to immediately choose between the warring parties—the subordinate is unlikely to win. Rather, I suggested he present possible solutions, demonstrate intent to work at the issue and ask for intervention or advice.
While I did advocate standing up for oneself, I reminded him that pushing back didn’t always mean overt aggression. He might not be able to control his boss’ behaviour, but he could control his own responses. A firm, calm stance is generally more constructive and effective, and would demonstrate his maturity and ability to cope with stressful situations. Whining to outsiders was a definite no-no, specially when he was still in the job—it reflected badly on everyone involved, including the organization.
As we well know, one of the biggest push factors for job changes are bad bosses. On the other hand, real life is not perfect, and working in teams always requires compromises and adjustments. Whether this situation was resolvable or not, eventually the banker would need to focus on and take charge of what was good for him, personally and professionally. If he realized it just wasn’t going to work, then he would have to walk away, but if possible take the time to build an exit strategy.
As we wrapped up, we discussed coping strategies, should he choose to stay. Look at what’s working. We tried to break down the boss’ behaviour into good, bad and ugly—differentiate between “the boss sucks” from “he sucks at managing under stress”. The boss didn’t get to his position by accident and probably had skills that could be learnt, standards that one could rise to. Adopting feedback, however inelegantly given, might actually make him a better professional. For example, his nit-picking, demanding, micromanaging boss may have taught him lifelong attention to detail. And if his boss was indeed a complete jerk, well, what goes around comes around.
As we walked out, he wondered what caused his manager to behave the way he did. Maybe he had a bad boss when he was younger, I suggested, only partly in jest—after all “kabhi saas bhi bahu thi”. At the very least, the young banker had learnt how to navigate a sticky situation and how not to behave with subordinates, when his time came. Perhaps as valuable a lesson as any.
Sonal Agrawal is chief executive, Accord Group, an executive search firm.
Write to Sonal at firstname.lastname@example.org