Professional Skills

Working with ineffective bosses

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We have all had ineffective bosses at one time or another in our careers. Alas, there are many reasons for poor leadership. Bad leadership can be the result of lack of experience, communication skills or lack of emotional intelligence. When the situation is the result of knowledge gaps, it CAN help to let your boss know what you need from him or her. And frankly, you should always try to communicate your needs to your boss, even if they aren’t receptive. But often, poor leadership is the result of depending too much on one leadership style.

Regardless of why your boss is an ineffective leader, it’s not your role to “fix” your boss. So, you’re going to have to figure out how to work with them for the time being. Because leadership style is so often the culprit, first we’ll take a look at the different management styles. Then we’ll look at some ways you can manage a boss with a specific style.

Leadership styles

Get to know your manager – their likes, dislikes, expectations and habits. Their communication style is an important piece of information that can help you tailor the focus and level of detail that you share with them.  Knowing your boss’ leadership style is the first step in learning how to best deal with him/her effectively. The three basic management styles are Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire.  While the Democratic leader can still be a poor manager, most often, issues with managers come from those who adopt a more autocratic or laissez-faire style. The best managers combine different elements from all three styles since there is a time and place for each approach. Many managers, however, will tend towards one of the three. 

Autocratic – The autocrat maintains control, making decisions directly. They provide specific instructions. They limit the decision-making of their employees. They may be Pacesetters, setting high standards and demanding the same of all others. They are often focused on negative feedback and corrective actions.

Democratic – The democratic leader makes decisions but considers the opinions of one or more team members. They strive to gain consensus. They leverage the knowledge and skills of the group. They may be Affiliative, striving to maintain harmony and connect people together, focusing on the results of the group versus the individual.

Laissez-faire – Rather than maintaining control of decisions, the laissez-faire manager lets employees make decisions directly. The “pure” laissez-faire manager provides little leadership, simply lets things happen and does not intervene.  But laissez-faire managers can also be Coaches, focusing on the individual and helping them see how to improve their performance. They may also be Visionaries, capable of painting a vision for the team and letting them run with it.

The Autocratic manager

The pure autocratic manager can be extremely hard to work with. Many leaders get to where they are because of their intellect and business acumen, not their relationship skills and emotional intelligence. You can learn a great deal from a smart but difficult leader if you can set aside their personality and focus on the knowledge they have to offer. It’s important that early on in the relationship you assess your personal motivations. What do you have to gain by getting along with this person? 

They often have a very abrasive style, which you should avoid taking personally. Listen to the message and do your best not to focus on the tone or style of delivery. If the abrasive style goes over the line to bullying and harassment, you’ll want to start thinking about taking action. My article 8 things you can do when you have a toxic boss covers how to document the situation.

Besides tone and style, Autocratic managers can prefer to keep information to themselves, making it difficult to stay on top of strategic direction and transformation. Leverage formal communications channels proactively as a starter. You can also establish a network of allies across the organization to create an informal communication channel.

Finally, it’s never a good idea to surprise an Autocratic manager. Keep them advised of issues as they emerge. It’s not about asking for help at early stages, but sharing that there is a problem and how you are handling it. If it escalates, they’ll be aware.

The Laissez-faire manager

The Laissez-faire manager is a completely different profile, usually with an extreme hands-off approach to management. Because they are not involved in the day to day workings of their team, they tend to have limited knowledge about how things work, and delegate downwards often.

Whether or not you enjoy it, with a manager like this you need to embrace autonomy. Forge your own path and manage yourself as best you can. If your manager isn’t responsive to requests for help or questions about how to do things, you’ll want to establish a network of experts around you who you can ask for help.

You’ll also want to provide your own visibility within the organization. Chances are, the Laissez-faire manager isn’t talking much to others about the team’s work or individual contributions. Find ways to share your key projects with others via best practice forums or other communication methods. Establish a relationship with your 2nd line manager if at all possible and keep them posted of your major accomplishments.

As with the Autocratic manager, Laissez-faire managers often don’t share information. In their case, they aren’t keeping it for themselves, they are simply negligent about passing it on. Sometimes, asking for more information can yield the “forward” of a key communication. But you’ll want to take the same measures mentioned above establishing your own sources for information.

Finally, even if your manager isn’t interested in knowing the details of your day to day work, you’ll want to keep them informed about your decisions and issues. They probably won’t do anything with it, but at the end of the day, you want to be able to demonstrate that your manager was aware of important issues and decisions if there is a problem down the line.

First line managers

The beauty and the curse of first line management is that you have the capability to create a different environment for your team than the broader environment in your organization. So, if you have an autocratic or laissez-faire manager, you can take matters in your own hands with your team.

Start by adopting your own management system. You can establish communication and a collaborative work environment within your own team. You can also help your team by pushing back on unreasonable demands and suggesting alternatives and trade-offs. It won’t always work, but it’s a win whenever it does.

Help your team members know what to expect when they are meeting with the boss. You can give them guidance about the boss’ leadership and communication style and help them learn how to interact effectively. 

Fostering collaboration

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Collaboration is essential to the success of multi-discipline and multi-departmental projects. It serves to provide different types of perspectives and expertise on any given problem or project. Indeed, it enhances the effectiveness of problem solving when done well. It also provides great opportunities for learning and growth.

Collaboration is more than just teamwork. Teamwork requires knowing your role, the steps to do it and who and when to hand off. Collaboration requires sharing perspective, opinion and experience. Without collaboration, a group of people is only as strong as each person’s individual contributions. A collaborative team however, represents more than the sum total of its members.

As a manager or project manager, collaboration starts with you. The first step to fostering collaboration is to solicit it yourself. If you are open to listening, understanding and applying others’ expertise, you can leverage their strengths. When you have a new project, idea, problem, take it to the team and ask for input. Encourage questions and facilitate brainstorming sessions to solve problems. Demonstrate by example how you strengthen your decision-making with others’ expertise. Be careful, If you invite other’s opinions but consistently ignore them, the team will be likely to mirror your behavior and stay entrenched in their own views.

Sharing expertise is the most empowering benefit of collaboration. Encourage it by establishing where expertise lies in the team. Who is the expert in key tools, processes, and skills? Communicate that expertise to the whole group. Ask experts to give their input when their domain is involved. Invite experts, in your team and in others, to share their expertise with the broader team. When new tools and processes are established, ask for a volunteer to become the focal point and expert.

Provide a forum to share best practices. When you see something particularly well done, innovative or effective, ask the team to create a best practice and share it around. But don’t only share successes. Share stories about issues and problems so the team can learn from past mistakes and help solve current problems.

One of the critical elements in collaboration is trust. Trust that a person, team or group is fully sharing knowledge, will do what they say they will do and has no hidden agendas. Reputation and personal experience govern trust in general. If you have a reputation for being a straight shooter and a good listener, open to discussion, you’ll begin new collaborations with an advantage of additional trust. If you are known as closed minded and unwilling to discuss or negotiate, you’ll find others less willing to work together.

Collaboration can also get out of hand. Not every topic needs to be debated and decided on in a group. Determining what decisions, problems and projects require collaboration and which ones don’t is an important first step. Where you, or your team, have ALL the expertise required to make a decision - no collaboration needed! If problems and projects require cross functional expertise, you’ll need to have the perspective of other teams and disciplines – thus collaboration.

When you are bringing together large groups, there are a few ways you can manage collaboration so it does not get out of control. Establish the expertise of each person in the group at the outset. When decisions present themselves, explicitly designate the experts who will have the final say/decision. That could be a combination of a sponsor/project manager and an expert, or several experts. The larger group can be asked for input and should be given an explanation on the key points which influenced the decision.

Finally, when very diverse groups meet together on a regular basis, it’s key to establish an agenda for meetings and clearly define what topics will be covered and decisions are needed.  This allows collaborators to know when they can safely bow out of a meeting where their expertise is less in demand.

It’s quite amazing to see a team start to get more autonomous about problem solving – going to one another for insights and advice before coming to the team’s or project’s manager. It takes some time to instill an overall sense of collaboration in a team. If you’re just getting started, be patient. It’s up to you to start by setting the example and then encourage others to follow suit.

Authenticity and vulnerability: walking the tightrope

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We all wear a mask to some extent when we go to work. We want to put forward our best selves. We put on our work uniforms (and yes, even those of us who don’t wear a formal uniform still have our “work clothes”), comb our hair, put on our makeup and show our professional faces. Being authentic at work can be daunting. What to show, what to keep for ourselves?

Say what you think

There are many ways to be authentic. One is to say what you really think instead of sticking to a company “party-line” or blindly agreeing to other’s ideas. Share your thoughts and experience, and especially your ideas for different ways to do things. Make sure you are providing productive feedback though, and not just griping. It’s worth speaking up with a different opinion if it comes with a different solution to solve the problem. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates an alternative opinion or solution being proposed. You’ll find some leaders open and others who expect their team to simply fall in line. Listen and learn who your boss is and how he or she prefers to hear opinions, thoughts and ideas.

When I have to deliver news which I know is uncomfortable, I share my own discomfort with the situation. Just because are required to do something as a manager or an employee does not mean you are comfortable with it. I have always tried to be open about what I think about things personally at the same time as I demonstrate, professionally, that I expect us to all move forward despite our discomfort. It’s a fine line to walk. As a manager, you represent decision-making authority, even if you didn’t make the decision. Showing your team compassion for the impact of the decision while taking concrete actions to implement it is not an impossible conundrum, but it is a little tricky. 

Lift the mask

Authenticity also comes from lifting up the mask a little and letting people see your personal life. Sharing stories about your favorite hobby, or about time spent with your spouse or children, your vacation, all enable people to see a personal side to you. You become more relatable to people who have something in common with you. And that’s part of how trust and relationships are built. The other part comes, of course, from delivering professionally.

Be vulnerable

Another aspect of authenticity is vulnerability. Admitting to others that you are human and capable of mistakes requires humility and vulnerability. To me, that’s a big part of vulnerability – being honest about your personal responsibility in things. Yes, I made a mistake…..and here’s how I am going to fix it. And here’s how I am going to avoid this ever happening again. Apologizing is a powerful tool, but it is much more powerful when accompanied by an action to counter the mistake.

Read the situation

I’ve gotten mixed advice over the years about admitting mistakes, or admitting that I don’t know something. Part of that is definitely from working in a Global culture. Some cultures admire the capability to admit mistakes and others are more focused on maintaining “face”. So, know who you are talking to and decide if you can “lift the mask” and show your face or whether you need to maintain the perfect professional face.

But it’s not just who you are talking to but what’s going on around you. The HBR article, The authenticity paradox, gives two examples where authenticity and vulnerability did not work out well. Admitting that you need help is one thing. Appearing like you can’t handle your job is quite another. In addition, authenticity is not an open invitation to refuse to grow in uncomfortable ways. Like everything else, there’s a time and a place for authenticity and vulnerability. Be sensitive to the context of your situation and the personalities of the people around you.

This blog was first published at Forbes.

Prioritization and time management

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No matter what stage in life you are in, things can get hectic and overwhelming. As soon as you have more than one thing to do, you need to manage your time and prioritize. At work, in many jobs, there is ALWAYS more you could do. So, how can you deal with that without killing yourself?

Start by having good time management practices. Use your calendar – not only to book meetings with others but to block out time to do important tasks. Know the meetings on your calendar. Which meetings do you need to prepare for? Which meetings absolutely require your presence?

Be militant with your agenda. Set guidelines for the times that you are willing and able to take meetings, with a standard morning start time and evening end time. Start negotiating the time of meetings (and the length!) to fit your limits. Know when it is necessary to accept an exception – it will happen but it should be just that, the exception and not the rule.

The same goes for planning out tasks. If you block time to do an important task, protect it and don’t just give it away at the first request. Put yourself in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. If you can’t do that, use a “Do not Disturb” sign to signal to those around you that you need to be uninterrupted.

All that is well and good but what about the unplanned requests and tasks? Everything that comes up seems to be urgent and practically overdue before you even get started. How do you weigh the priorities of the different tasks you have to accomplish?

There are several scales to think about as you weigh the priority of your to do list. The first is urgency. What is the due date? How much time will it take to do it? What’s the latest you can get started and be timely? Consider the various due dates on your actions and you can prioritize by due date and time to get done. But that’s not enough.

The second is importance. Is the task strategic or tactical? What is the impact if this task is not done? If it’s not done on time? Who is asking for it? Assess the level of importance of the task and the potential consequences of not doing the task. Make sure you understand what the purpose (or end goal) is and not just the task you are being asked to fulfill. Many deadlines can be moved and it’s important to get a sense of whether or not deadlines are fixed due to dependencies or whether they were randomly picked. Some tasks may have little or no consequence if they are not done.

When considering who is asking for the work to be done, I would suggest some caution. It’s not about systematically prioritizing what the big bosses want. Yes, it’s an important consideration if a high-level executive is requesting something. However, the implications of not meeting some peer deadlines may have high consequences down the line, so never decide based on who is asking with no other context.

Once you have looked at all this, you can reshuffle your priorities and your time to accommodate it. But how can you make time? There are a number of ways.

1)      Learn to say no – some tasks that you are requested to do may be “nice to have” but not critical compared to the rest of your task list.

2)      Cancel meetings which are not time sensitive when you have an exceptional fire drill

3)      Shift priorities – take over a time slot which was meant for another, less urgent task. Don’t forget to reschedule the task you are stealing the slot from, unless you decide elimination is the way to go.

4)      Consider “good enough” solutions to requests – understanding the end goal of a request is important. Sometimes, more work is requested than is needed to meet the goal. Some people are perfectionists and will systematically go deeper and provide more polish than is required. A request for an in-depth report may hide the need for a specific number. Data from last week which has already been analyzed may be good enough to give someone a glimpse into the trends they need to understand. Understand when you can do less and still meet the end goal.

5)      Don’t be a slave to instant messaging and email – responsiveness is great, but it’s not always needed by return. When you have a vital task to accomplish, turn your instant messaging to Do Not Disturb while you work. Ignore email notifications which pop up on your screen. Focus on the task at hand and go back to your new messages later.

Don’t let you’re your tasks and priorities manage you. Take charge and start managing your time and priorities more effectively! Having trouble? Get a coach to help!

Building organizational acumen

Organizational acumen is nothing more or less than understanding how things work in your organization. The better you understand the structure, systems, processes and people in the organization, the more effective you will be at getting things done. Find out how you can improve your organizational acumen.

Communication styles

Communication is the key to success in ……. just about everything. But if you’re looking to have a successful career, it’s a foundational skill that you need to master. This blog series will take a look at three aspects of communication.

Passionate Or Pushy – How To Avoid Going Over The Line

When you are emotionally charged and passionate about your work, it’s easy to cross the border from passionate to pushy. When you’re passionate, you are enthusiastic, eager, fervid, emotional, and heartfelt. When you’re pushy, you are overbearing, domineering, aggressive, and forceful. How can enthusiasm deteriorate into aggression?

8 tips for resolving conflict

Wherever there is conflict, there is liable to be escalating stress. As a project manager, your actions and reactions in the face of conflict will set an example for the team. Every conflict is unique, but basically is about managing opposing forces and disagreement. You’ll see that resolving conflict calls on many areas of learning we have covered so far. This blog focuses on bringing it all together.

Accepting “good enough”

Many years ago, I was part of a team of marketers in Europe. Our team was made up of people from many countries in Europe and this American. It was almost all women, with one, very quiet, very discreet man. Marketing was undergoing (yet another) transformation and job descriptions had been changed.

Resolving conflict – start by managing your own stress

Complex work environments give rise to a broad range of handicapping emotions: frustration, overwhelm, worry, blame to name a few. These emotions can trigger a stress reaction which activates adrenalin and cortisol, causing a physical reaction which can then impact our behavior.

Managing unrealistic goals at work

Are you tearing your hair out over unrealistic goals at work? Humans have a need for fairness and autonomy (control). As one of the top workplace stressors, unrealistic objectives and demands make us feel overwhelmed, but also angry and powerless. But what can you do about it? 

Working with people you don’t like

We’ve all had to do it – work with someone we really, really don’t like. It can be both physically and emotionally uncomfortable working with people you don’t like. Dislike can be triggered by physical appearances, unconscious bias, attitudes or opinions, even the sound of someone’s voice. Generally speaking, we dislike what we can not relate to and what we do not approve.

5 Ways to Influence Without Authority

Influencing without authority is a critical job skill for project managers. Keeping the cats herded requires a combination of strong project management and communication skills. When you combine that with influencing levers, you can master the most complex projects. Here are five ways to influence without authority.

10 ways a project manager can reduce stress

Every project manager has to deal with stress. Complex projects, difficult deadlines and changing conditions all contribute to a stressful work environment. The project manager is in a unique situation to reduce the stress levels of a project. Here are 10 ways a project manager can reduce stress.