The Problematic Boss: Eight Ways You–And Trump’s Cabinet–Can Manage Upward – Forbes
The predicament of what to do about a rotten boss is a regrettably common phenomenon in today’s workplace. Most of the dispiriting struggles that ensue from those situations take place in the hidden interstices of the bureaucracy, far from public view, as managers try to impose on their subordinates positions and actions that are poorly thought-through (Blackberry), short-sighted (Nokia), scatter-brained (HP), unprofitable (Valeant) unscrupulous (Relational), unwise (CalSTRS), unethical (Countrywide), unhealthy (British American Tobacco), or even flat-out illegal (Volkswagen and the multiple banks in the LIBOR rigging and other scandals). With only 33% of the workforce fully engaged in their work (Gallup) and even fewer (11%) truly passionate (Deloitte’s Center for the Edge), the problem of the problematic boss is more widespread than generally realized.
The challenge for all those who face problematic bosses is: how to manage upwards when those in authority are on the wrong track?
As it happens, this is the exact challenge now facing many of President-elect Trump’s cabinet nominees in their new responsibilities: how to manage upwards with a boss who appears—how shall I put this?—less than fully adapted in terms of temperament, attitude, knowledge, experience and competence to handle the responsibilities of his office.
In this instance, the challenge will be even more difficult as it will be played out, not in private, but in the full glare of constant national and international scrutiny, sometimes amid sharply partisan viewpoints, and often with swift disruptive repercussions.
Thus during this last week’s cabinet nominee hearings, the nominees Chao, Mattis, Pompeo, Sessions, and Tillersen acted for the most part as “adults in the room”–with presentations and answers that were generally responsive, substantive, measured, thoughtful, balanced, collegial, respectful, with a commitment to legality and veracity and to the value of doing what is right, as well as reflecting a concern for the long term future of the country and keeping its word to the rest of the world. (A new Quinnipiac poll indicates that only 30% approve of Trump’s overall cabinet choices. The hearings so far have only covered a handful of the cabinet picks. A number of controversial cabinet picks have yet to appear for confirmation.)
By contrast, the nominees’ boss held a press conference on Wednesday January 11–his first in six months—that displayed a character that was often unresponsive to the questions being asked, self-congratulatory, superficial, thin-skinned, resentful, exasperated, unbalanced, impulsive, chaotic, combative, disrespectful, exuding braggadocio and narcissism and evincing no more than a semblance of an attachment to veracity or legality. (For instance, the Washington Post counted at least fifteen “unsubstantiated claims” in the course of the brief session, thus continuing the pattern of Trump’s presidential campaign and his prior birther movement. The Office of Government Ethics characterized Trump’s ostensible plan to separate the presidency from his business as “wholly inadequate” and even “meaningless.”)
Overall, the president-elect’s press conference resembled a political brawl than an informative exchange of views on policy. It often seemed motivated by an attempt at preventing, rather than enabling, the press to do its job. It even risked creating the impression that “the swamp” which the president-elect has declared he intends to drain is the media, not the power brokers, the Wall Street bankers, and lobbyists that he railed against during the presidential campaign. His denouncing the important news channel CNN as “fake news” isn’t easy to reconcile with at least the spirit of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has up till now been understood as guaranteeing the unlimited distribution of information and opinions and protecting the press from any government tendencies to suppress unwelcome news or views.
While these Cabinet nominees for the most part were focused in their hearings on getting beyond the turbulent rhetoric of the presidential campaign and moving into the future, their leader’s press conference seemed more oriented to continuing the divisive campaign, settling scores, reliving yet again supposedly brilliant victories, attacking Hillary Clinton and creating distractions from more substantive matters. The focus of the press conference was less about what is the right thing for the country’s long term prosperity and security and more about what Trump can get away with saying to appeal to his base, regardless of how that approach might be received by the majority of the country, including independents, or America’s allies.
Prior to the hearings, 51% of Americans already disapproved of the way the president-elect is conducting the transition to office. So far, the president-elect has ignored numerous polls revealing a majority of American believe he should stop tweeting: a Quinnipiac poll indicates 64% think Trump should shut down his personal Twitter account permanently—advice that the president-elect seems likely to decline..)
In these hearings of the cabinet nominees, some of them stated positions that were directly at odds with positions that the president-elect has taken, both during the campaign and since his election. Since the nominees were coached for their nomination appearances by the Trump transition team, the positions they took can hardly have been a surprise to the president-elect. Indeed the president-elect himself said this week that he had encouraged the nominees to say what they believe, not defend his views.
Bait And Switch?
How that tension will play out over the coming weeks, months and years remains to be seen. It is possible that the positions taken by the cabinet nominees were similar to the president-elect’s own “bait and switch” approach with the electorate and that they are saying whatever might get their nominations approved by Congress before taking u-turns to pursue the president-elect’s real agenda, hoping that voters won’t notice or will forget.
In the case of the president-elect, the promises and taunts of the campaign that seem at risk of being set aside include: “draining the swamp,” protecting Main Street from Wall Street and the sharks at Goldman Sachs, replacing Obamacare it with “something better” on day one, relaunching torture and water boarding, enacting massive tax cuts while reducing the deficit, banning all Muslims, disengaging from trade agreements, withdrawing from climate change accords, making Mexico pay for the wall, and “locking her up.”.
What To Do With A Problematic Boss?
But let’s be optimistic and assume that the cabinet nominees mean what they have been saying in the nomination hearings and intend to implement that, regardless of what the president-elect has said and keeps saying.
It would be wise for them to do so, since in the administration of their various portfolios, cabinet nominees will be dealing with a press and a Congress that is more discerning and attentive than Trump’s political base. Both the press and Congress have the capacity to research, highlight and broadly disseminate any missteps or backsliding. Moreover the entrenched federal bureaucracy itself is also full of talented and often brilliant people who will not be easy to lead if their hearts are not in their jobs. Indeed, if there is an attempt to pursue unwise, unethical or illegal policies, the risk of explicit or implicit sabotage is high. There will thus be political and other costs if the nominees stray from the generally sensible approaches that they have been advocating in their hearings. To their credit, most of the nominees do not appear to embrace the shape-shifting opinions or the Houdini-like conscience of their leader.
How can these cabinet nominees (or anyone for that matter) handle a problematic boss? What strategies are available for managing upwards? The solution is not always obvious, given the disparities in raw power between boss and subordinates. Yet capitulation to a boss’s misguided wishes is not inevitable if subordinates know how to approach the challenge.
Eight Ways To Redirect A Problematic Boss
Most of following guidelines are not new, but they were reinforced by my own experience some years ago in spearheading a major strategic change in a highly political organization–the World Bank–from a position of no management authority at all.
- At the outset, get clear on where you are heading. Define your goal and lay out your ground rules from the beginning. Ideally this will take the form of an easily comprehensible and compelling story. Know where you are going and how you are going to get there. In terms of interference from the boss, be clear on what is a bridge too far. Remember, even a bad boss needs you, even if he or she doesn’t always grasp that. A lot of bosses’ talk is just that–talk.
- Persuade the leader in person. Forget statistics and complex written documents or emails, which never changed anyone’s deeply held opinion. Get face to face, eyeball to eyeball. In the discussion, start from the leader’s perceived current problems and use simple powerful stories to show the way forward. Remember: stories don’t always work, but the other stuff doesn’t work at all.
- Be prepared to leave. Recognize that this is your life, not a preparation for some other life. It is for “all the marbles.” You are not there to bend and twist with the wind. You have set out a clear course. Follow it. Bend and adapt but don’t break. If the leader crosses the line in terms of interference, it’s time to go, even if it’s early days. If you stick around things will only get worse.
- Band together. Your fellow direct reports are in the same predicament. There is strength in numbers. Get together with them. Establish common ground.
- Look for key allies. Look for “influentials” in your leader’s immediate circle as well as in the circles below that. You don’t need and can’t expect unanimity. Aim for a coalition of at least one-third of the “influentials.” Build this coalition even before trouble comes. The coalition needs to be ready to spot and take advantage of opportunities, as well as help head off wrong turnings. Recognize that you can’t and won’t necessarily be the one who makes the case with the leader: there may be others who for one reason or another can tell the story more effectively or at the right moment more opportunely.
- Be open with outsiders, particularly the press. The media, including social media, are your potential friends, not your enemies. To the extent possible, share your game plan and the constraints. The external positive views of what you are doing can reinforce any positive movement within the organization.
- Broaden your support. In the political-administrative realm, you can draw on popular support. The president-elect didn’t win the popular vote and most of his positions appear to enjoy minority support of the public. Already the Trump’s post-election bump in popularity has almost evaporated (Quinnpiac). If his popularity continues on this trajectory, his influence will become toxic. Use popular support for your positions and show how supporting them will help resolve his problems. (In commercial firms, nurture and draw on customer support for your game plan. Keep steadily in mind Peter Drucker’s foundational insight of 1954: there is one valid purpose of a firm, to create a customer.)
- Transform fence-sitters into champions. In the political-administrative sphere, cabinet nominees will need to work with vulnerable Republicans in Congress. The danger to your cause is that Trump will threaten to campaign against any congressman or senator who takes a contrary position, thus aiming to generate enough support to push through changes that those legislators would personally prefer not to support, but are frightened to oppose openly. There is a risk that they will be voting against their consciences in order to save their political skins. Cabinet members should identify such potential swing legislators and find ways to support them in their respective districts or states. Show them that they are not alone. Inspire with your core story. (In the commercial sphere, work with the many fence-sitters throughout the firm who are worried about their careers. Show them that doing the wrong thing will ultimately be more risky.)
Bottom-line: Go For It!
Whether your problematic boss is in politics, government or commerce, some of the steps listed above will seem difficult, particularly for those who are worried about their future. What we all need to grasp is that the future is now. If we go through life acting timidly, repeatedly compromising and pretending that they will eventually get around to pursuing the appropriate goals and approaches, we eventually find that the future never comes. We find that we have wasted our brief lives attached to dispiriting treadmills.
Some of my most interesting experiences have been during interviews about what occurs to people after “the very worst experience in their entire working lives.” A very common response is that their lives took an immensely positive turn. Sometimes it meant heading in the same direction and sometimes it meant taking a radically different course. But it was almost always more positive, more meaningful and more fruitful than anything that had gone before. It was often accompanied by a recognition that the dark valley of despair that they had left behind was a dispiriting prison of their own making. Getting out of that prison and taking charge of their own lives usually revealed a blue sky of energizing freedom.
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