Managing Your Unpredictable Boss

The other day I asked a friend how her new position was going.

“My boss is unpredictable…” Her voice trailed off in disappointment.

We paused in unison and let the words hang out there for a few seconds. We were sharing an identical realization: that’s a tough spot to be in.

My friend faces a challenge familiar to many of us. The person who manages us at work has a tremendous influence in our life. If we can’t predict when they are in “a mood”, or have difficulty reading their physical or verbal cues, it’s going to hurt us, and maybe worse.

Read this article on how your boss could kill you. It’s not hyperbole. Stress brought on by a manager who gives us a queasy feeling in the stomach just by shadowing our office doors can make us sick. It can make us reach for alcohol or drugs. The stress can stalk us.  Nobody who is unsure of the firmness of the ground beneath them can be a top performer or a risk taker. We default to safety, or our perception of it – which actually could make the situation worse.

Work relationships are like mini-marriages. We see these people in the office more than we see our friends and spouses. A work partnership overshadowed by uncertainty can affect us profoundly.

I felt some surrogate pain for my friend. She worked hard to attain her current position.

Her unpredictable boss was the person who made the recent promotion happen.  Now she is bewildered, and not sure what to do next. This confusion is manifested by that fact: the boss promoted her, so he must “like” her, right?

So are her feelings of unease her fault? Has she not communicated clearly with her manager? Perhaps they are not a good personality match, and are doomed to not be in sync.

Considering these weighty circumstances is enough to make even an otherwise confident performer unsettled.

Hiding from the problem will not make it go away. There is one step you can take to gain insight: find out your manager’s motivations. Try and walk a mile in their shoes. Ask around the office what’s going on. This is far less risky than you might think.  There’s a zero percent chance you are the only person on your team who feels like you do. Asking about the manager’s agenda is not complaining. It’s not whining. It’s information gathering that can not only help you but others on the staff who may share your indigestion. They may be hugely grateful you brought it up!

There are people in your office who will be willing to be a little vulnerable and share their feelings. You will have to also be a little vulnerable. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a weakness. We are not required to be “on” 24/7, free of doubt and full of sunny optimism. We’re human.  There is not one thing wrong with searching for answers to questions of human behavior.

Consider approaching a friend at the office with something like “How are you and (boss) getting along these days?” Look for vulnerability cues. Share your concerns, gently, in spoonfuls. Don’t whine. You are sharing information to be helpful. You have no agenda other than to understand the vibe in the workplace, and the knowledge you gain can help others. When your friend believes that you are asking to be helpful to them as well as yourself, they will feel comfortable sharing.

The next time you and Mr. Unpredictable get together, and the mood seems good, ease into a conversation about expectations and goals. Maybe you and the boss are simply not on the same page with a few things. This little chat might clear up some things. You will look engaged and interested – not weak.

When we know what our manager’s motivations are, we are a long way toward understanding how they tick – and that alone can reduce the angst we have felt.

They will not change, likely. All the clichés apply here – we can’t change them, but we can change how we feel about them.

Who knows? Maybe the boss will share something about themselves that will illuminate for you where they are coming from.

I got lucky once. I had a manager who was very impatient, a bit of a perfectionist. I learned from some colleagues that the man’s father was also in our industry, and was known for being a ball buster.

Ding.

Knowing that little nugget of information was very helpful.

We are not entitled to have a boss who evolves into a mentor or friend. The vast majority of the time we will have someone managing us who is imperfect.

Just like we are.

Try to walk a mile in their shoes. Your well-being may depend on it.

John Scott is the national online learning coordinator, career services manager and an instructor at the School of Multimedia Communications, Academy of Art University, San Francisco. He also counsels clients and groups on the art of reinvention.  His debut book  ”Broken Glass and Barbed Wire” will be released soon. Follow John on Twitter @johnscottsf.

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