Mugged by a Meddling Manager

There's no stopping the boss who swoops in to scrap your carefully crafted plans. A partial solution: Better lines of communication

By Liz Ryan

A friend writes to me: "Dear Liz, my boss loves to second-guess my decisions. When I'm ready to choose a supplier for a project after much consideration, he has a favorite vendor who gets the work. When I'm about to move forward on a major decision, he jumps in and changes direction.

"It's too much. I feel like I can't make a move without being stomped on and undercut by the tyrant. What do you suggest?"


  I'm reading my friend's message, and I'm urging every part of my being to show some empathy. I try to prime the pump: You poor thing. That sounds miserable. How can you stand it? Your boss is awful. But it isn't working.

Too many of my brain cells recall this situation from the other side of the desk -- from the perspective of the underinformed boss who is brought up to speed 10 minutes before some big trigger is about to be pulled. But I don't want to be cruel to the writer. So I'll address the issue in this column, where I can explain my lack of sympathy in some (hopefully, helpful) detail.

First off, life is a learning process, and we should learn from our mistakes and unpleasant experiences. If your boss jumps in to micro-manage your process one or two times, don't you change your routine to prevent a recurrence?


  You can do that pretty easily by regularly walking through your project plans with your manager -- at least once a month. You'll say: "Here's what I'm doing, this is my plan, and its timeline. Here's a big step coming up, when we assign this contract to a supplier, next Thursday. Here's why I like Vendor A. Are there any other vendors you'd like to consider? What part do you want to play? Am I okay to proceed with the plan and schedule I've just laid out?"

When it comes to supplier selection in particular, you have to give your boss some slack. After all, most bosses are bosses by virtue of the fact that they know something about their end of the business and have been around for awhile.

Of course they have favorite suppliers. So do you, and you aren't even the boss. Wouldn't you expect a person who has spent some serious time in an industry or function to know who the players are? Unless you're suggesting that your boss's favorite vendor is a charlatan and that there are nefarious reasons for your boss's loyalty to him, how can you complain?


  Now onto the boss's habit of disrupting your plans. We've all had the Seagull Boss (swoop-and-poop) experience at least once, and it's indisputably frustrating. But once it occurs, you realize what you need to do to prevent it from happening again: Overcommunicate. Bring your boss up to speed way before a critical go-date. Get a strong vote of confidence for each major step in your plan.

Is the mean boss really changing direction, or were you unclear on his direction to begin with? Did you clearly understand his goals before planning your project? Your tyrannical boss may be less evil than you think. He may be less a tyrant than an ordinary manager in search of clear progress reports from his team members.

Now, let's acknowledge that there are capricious and forgetful and just plain random managers. You may have all the approval, all the support in the world for your ideas -- permission may even be in writing -- and your boss can still decide that your plan is all wrong. That happens. That's when you get to use your quizzical problem-solving tone.By Liz Ryan


  "I'm confused," you say to your boss. "Back on Apr. 24 we agreed on this direction. Help me understand what has changed."

You may learn something, like the fact that the board has adopted a different strategy for the business, or that a new budgetary constraint or (less likely) loosening has come into play, or that a philosophical shift is in the works. Or you may simply learn that your boss likes to change her mind.

If there was a change in direction that affects your plan, you can say: "I'm glad I checked back with you. What can I do differently to learn about these changes when they occur?" Of course, the answer may be "nothing" -- you simply may have to check back frequently with your boss.


  But the answer could also be "read the report from marketing every week, and get on the distribution list" or "come to the weekly production meeting." If so, do it. Getting closer to any important source of information can only be good for your performance, and your career.

Or let's say that you learn only that your boss is capricious. Does this make her a tyrant? I don't think so. Once you know her tendencies, you can deal more effectively with her by synching up more frequently, focusing on your boss's likes and dislikes, and generally moving closer to a state of boss/employee mind meld.

Why should you work so hard at such stuff, you may wonder? No reason at all, as long as you prefer the frustration of pushing hard to the 10 yard line, only to be knocked out of bounds at the last moment.


  I'm not excusing less-than-sensational managers. I'm only observing that they abound, and that learning to live with them is a major career advantage and personal learning opportunity. The more flexible you become dealing with quick-change bosses, the better you'll be able to handle other crises in your career.

A final note. If you're able to be highly introspective, you may learn that part of your difficulty in staying aligned with your boss comes from your own fierce desire to do your own thing. That's understandable. You're smart and capable, so why should you have to get permission for every little move you make?

You'll be kidding yourself, however, if you believe that the way to increased latitude is to charge off down every path, hoping to avoid the boss's intervention. It's just the reverse, in fact.


  The more comfortable your manager is with your decisions, the more freedom you'll get over time. I know senior individuals who, on certain critical matters, check in with their chiefs two or three times a day. That's not a lack of independence -- it's an understanding that the more they know about the boss's thinking on high-impact issues, the less double-checking will be needed down the road.

That means more time available for hatching my grand scheme for world domination, or just a new color scheme for the company Web site. Either way, time spent on keeping your boss in whatever loops she likes to be in is never wasted.

Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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