The boss question is the question most frequently asked by Fast Company readers — and probably by businesspeople everywhere. "What do I do about my boss? I'm trying to change the way things are done around here, but my boss doesn't have a clue. Help!" To find some answers to this question of questions, we first tried talking to smart veterans of the boss wars — serious in-the-trenches businesspeople. But they were too smart and too battle-tested to talk, at least by name, about their bosses. We then approached various writers, academics, thinkers, and consultants — men and women who make it their business to answer this boss question. So read their lessons on boss management, and then decide for yourself: What do you do about your boss?
United Feature Syndicate
New York, New York
Trying to convince your boss to sanction your brilliant idea or to approve your latest and greatest project? Whatever you do, never use the so-called direct approach: "I have an idea. Let's do this." Dilbert would take exactly that approach, because he's an engineer and totally ignorant of the human condition. But the only way that a boss will respond to a reasonable suggestion is unreasonably — like with some of those great-idea-sinker questions: "If this is such a good idea, why isn't everybody doing it?" Or, "Have you asked everybody in the organization — all 1,000 of them — to buy into your idea?" The worst thing you can do is to assume that your boss is a thoughtful person who will immediately recognize a good idea and take a personal risk to implement it.
Instead, I suggest using the hypnosis approach. Lead your boss to your idea through subtle questioning — giving him the impression that it was his idea in the first place.
But the number-one strategy for managing your boss is to get him focused on other things, so that you can go merrily about your business. To do this, try using the decoy approach. When presenting an idea, make sure that you include one step or item that obviously doesn't fit — so that your boss will have something to criticize and can feel that he's provided valuable input. For example, include a slide that lists the items in your four-step plan: (1) Do research. (2) Develop a prototype. (3) Assassinate the archduke of Prussia. (4) Produce the product.
Inevitably, your boss will clamor that something doesn't look right about your presentation. If you're lucky (you've got a one-in-four chance), he'll focus on step three, assassinating the archduke of Prussia. He'll demand that you skip that step, and he'll feel good about his input. Then he'll give you the green light — and leave you wonderfully alone.
Scott Adams (www.dilbert.com) is the creator of "Dilbert," a cartoon read by more than 150 million people every day. Adams is also the author of 14 books. Dilbert, Adams's hapless hero, also has an animated series on prime-time television.
Professor of Business Administration
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California
I have four tips for dealing with a boss who's a firm believer in maintaining the status quo: First, make sure it's really your boss who is the horse's ass — the one resisting change. Second, identify coconspirators, or the people I call "variance sensors," who really understand the social architecture of a company. Third, work with the healthy part of the organization. When I was president of the University of Cincinnati, I discovered that I spent too much time worrying about those who resisted change. Instead, work with people who want to go forward. And fourth, you've got to know when it's time to walk away. Ask yourself how long you can work for a boss who not only blocks the organization's progress but also stunts your own growth.
If you're the leader, you've got to give up your omniscient and omnipotent fantasies — that you know and must do everything. Learn how to abandon your ego to the talents of others. There's a great example of this from 19th-century British history. Two dominant figures of that era were William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Gladstone was a powerful public figure for more than 60 years. It was said that when you had dinner with Gladstone, you thought that you were with the most interesting, brilliant, and provocative conversationalist. And it was said that when you dined with Disraeli — an equally charismatic figure — you felt that you were the most interesting, brilliant, and provocative conversationalist. If you're a boss, ask yourself which are you most like — Gladstone or Disraeli? There's a profound difference.
Warren Bennis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. Over the last 45 years, he has been an adviser to four presidents (as well as many to Fortune 500 companies). He has also authored more than 25 best-sellers and prizewinning books, including On Becoming a Leader (Perseus, 1994). His latest book (coauthored with David A. Jeenan) is Co-Leaders (John Wiley, 1999).
Director, Career Development Office
Change is not a process for the impatient. It takes time — a simple truth that many of us fail to realize. First, understand that the metabolism rate — the tolerance for change — of your boss or of your organization might be dramatically different from your own. Then look around. Find other people who are willing to take the journey of change with you. Never go at it alone. Undoubtedly, others in your company feel as you do. Your task is to find them.
In a previous job incarnation, I was director of student services and a member of the management team for an entire school system. At the first team meeting, I realized that there were only 7 women on the whole team, versus 41 men. In fact, the 7 of us were the first female administrators that the high school in that school district had ever had. So we formed a strategic support group. When the entire management team would meet every other Wednesday, we women wouldn't really acknowledge each other. But when the meeting was over, we would all meet for dinner — at another location.
Those dinners were totally clandestine — a very strategic, well-planned assault on the status quo. Our intention was not to kvetch but to relentlessly trickle our ideas and agenda into the system. We had very clear ideas about the changes that needed to take place. And we strategized ways to help one another advance these changes. We would prioritize the issues and then figure out who would push each idea forward and how.
We were secretive because we wanted to take the system by surprise. And we did not want anyone to dismiss our group as a silly feminist whim. We never couched any of our initiatives in personal or "feminist" terms. We taught each other a new language — a language of business outcomes and organizational effectiveness. For years, we planted seeds of change within the organization and then sat back as the rest of the management team gradually came around to our point of view. We were quiet, but we were potent.
Barbara Reinhold (email@example.com) is head of the career development office at Smith College and is an adjunct associate professor of psychology. She is also the author of Toxic Work: How to Overcome Stress, Overload and Burnout and Revitalize Your Career (Dutton, 1996).
Franklin Covey Co.
Don't get into the habit of broadcasting your boss's sins. Don't let yourself become a victim of your boss's weaknesses. And stop looking for evidence (in clandestine watercooler sessions with your colleagues) to justify your feelings about your terrible boss: how he's the source of your career block — a traditionalist who flat-out resists change. If you fall into these habits, you'll become addicted with the "metastasizing cancers" of the workplace: complaining, criticizing, comparing, and competing. Instead, learn to manage your boss by focusing on your own circle of influence.
That circle includes all the things over which you have control. The first step: Make sure that your job is in order. If it's not, you have no credibility. Credibility is something you earn gradually by being one of the best performers. Also, don't bad-mouth your boss: Be loyal to people in their absence. Then watch how others begin having more faith and confidence in you, because they know that you won't be talking about them behind their backs. And finally, understand the place from which your boss — or for that matter, any of your colleagues — is coming from. Nothing is more validating and affirming than feeling understood. And the moment a person begins feeling understood, that person becomes far more open to influence and change.
Learn and practice the art of personal leadership, and see how it inspires those around you — including your boss.
Stephen Covey (www.franklincovey.com) is an internationally respected leadership authority, family expert, teacher, and organizational consultant. He has made principle-centered living and leadership his life's work. He is the author of many books, including the acclaimed best-seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Fireside, 1990), which has sold more than 10 million copies. It has been translated into 32 languages, and is sold in 72 countries.
Anita F. Hill
Law professor, author, and lawyer
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to how to navigate organizational change when your boss believes in holding to the status quo. But you should have some basic guideposts in mind when you start your journey.
Before laying anything out on the table, do your homework. First, understand the dynamics of your culture: Who has the real power in the organization? Know how that power is both wielded and controlled. Next, you should have a clear sense of how many people will benefit from your idea or project once it's carried through. Is this mission just part of your personal agenda — with you as the primary benefactor? Be able to document and support your findings about the way others will benefit from your plan. Finally, analyze what's truly important to your boss. What motivates your boss? What is your boss trying to promote and achieve?
Some of the biggest pitfalls in this process are taking initial resistance to change personally and believing that resistance is intractable. Very few people are absolutely opposed to change. Rather, they hesitate because they cannot see immediately how they will benefit from it. You've got to show them. Realize that there are many ways to achieve your goal. Learn to use creativity and flexibility to get there.
Anita F. Hill was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma from 1986 to 1997. Her memoir, Speaking Truth to Power (Anchor Books, 1998), is in part her reflections on her testimony during the 1991 nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She is now writing a book based on her work on issues of gender and racial diversity.
Ronald A. Heifetz
Director, Leadership Education Project
John F. Kennedy School of Government
First, understand a simple truth about all bosses: A boss is not an autonomous creature, behaving only according to her own preferences or style. She is often being pulled in different directions. And her seemingly conservative inclinations evolve from the need to find the lowest common denominator among conflicting expectations. Although that may seem obvious, so often we imagine (and then treat) the boss as "the enemy" — whose sole purpose is to disagree or to say no. Instead, think politically about the larger network in which your boss must operate. See how you can make a systemic intervention, rather than focusing all your attention on getting your boss to change.
Second, you can't lead alone; that is suicidal. Change creates disequilibrium. The easiest way for an organization (or a boss) to restore equilibrium is to neutralize the source of the disequilibrium — in other words, you. So develop allies. Build a case for why your initiative is going to pay off in the larger network. Simply put: Make it as easy as you can for your boss to be supportive of you.
Ronald A. Heifetz (ronald_heifetz @harvard.edu) teaches some of the most popular classes at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Much of his research focuses on effective leadership. Heifetz also authored Leadership Without Easy Answers (the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994).
BBM Human Resource Consultants Inc.
If your boss doesn't understand the need for change, this might be partly your fault. You can't make change; you have to sell it. And the key to selling anything is to understand where the other person is coming from — rather than to assume that your boss is a complete jerk. But most of us communicate from an egocentric place. We construct an idea or a project mainly in terms of what makes sense to us. Instead, ask yourself: "What's most important to my boss?" "What are his greatest concerns?" Go forward only after you've answered these questions.
Barbara Moses (www.bbmcareerdev.com) has taught "career activism" to people from such well-known companies as Levi Strauss & Co., Lucent Technologies Inc., and Four Seasons Regent Hotels. She has also authored and published the Career Planning Workbook (1982),which has been used by more than 1 million people.
McKinsey & Co.
At the core of the endless trove of "how to manage your boss" lore is the idea that the employee is somehow smarter and more enlightened, informed, and capable than the boss. The problem with this fable is that it creates the romantic illusion of the lone leader of change, taking innumerable risks, walking to the edge of the cliff, heroically dragging his resistant boss or the rest of the unwitting organization behind him. Beware the legend!
I think one of the keys to effecting real change — and by extension managing your boss — is to realize that you yourself did not stumble over your brilliant insight or ingenious project idea in one glorious moment. Undoubtedly, you arrived at your idea over time. It was a process. When your boss doesn't understand your ideas immediately, don't label her an ignorant bureaucrat — a force to be reckoned with. That attitude will back your boss against the wall and make it difficult for you to get your point across.
Instead, recognize that your boss has to go through a similar journey of understanding that you traveled to "get there." Ultimately, self-discovery is much more powerful than any preaching from on high — or from below. Help your boss discover what you're proposing, and you'll find that you won't have to waste time maneuvering or dodging.
Mark Maletz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a principal in McKinsey's organization practice as well as an associate professor of management at Babson College. As a change architect, Maletz has been responsible for more than 50 large-scale change initiatives across a variety of industries.
Senior Vice President for Development
Providence, Rhode Island
I've got three words for you: Suck it up. Intense psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals might have a significant impact on your boss's behavior — but you won't. It's not up to you to change your boss, but you can change your situation. You can do this in one of three ways: impose or relax constraints on the situation, work your way around the situation, or get out of the situation.
Yes, it's a grim and unjust reality: Most of us work in hierarchical organizations — and we have bosses. Therefore, the consequences are grave when you establish a mindset that says, "You are not the boss of me. I am the boss of me." Sometimes I marvel at people who expect their boss to move heaven and earth to accommodate whatever idiosyncratic interest or point of view they have — without considering peers, efficiency, or hierarchy.
My first job, at age 19, taught me an invaluable lesson about working for dumb bosses. Back then, I worked for the state government of Rhode Island. My boss was as dumb as a rock. But he required only three things from me: He needed to get credit for everything; he wanted to be fully briefed weekly; and he wanted me to get him into the newspaper as much as I could. If I did these things, I had the latitude to do whatever I wanted with my work. Although my friends thought I was working for a complete dope, I was thinking that this situation was a gift from heaven. At age 19, I had opportunities that I could never have had anywhere else — experiences that, down the line, made me substantially more valuable in the job market. If you work for a dumb boss, don't be dumb to the opportunities that exist. Find them, and then exploit them for your own benefit.
Unfortunately, there are bosses who simultaneously are dumb and don't let you do anything. If you're working for one of those, my message changes to just two words: Move on.
Leonard Schlesinger (email@example.com) was the George Baker Jr. Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He now heads Brown's fund-raising enterprise. He has written several books, including The Service Profit Chain, which he coauthored with J.L. Heskett and W.E. Sasser (Free Press, 1997), and The Real Heroes of Business: . . . and Not a CEO Among Them, with W. Fromm (Doubleday, 1994).
Dumb bosses aren't dumb in terms of IQ. They're dumb when it comes to operating in the world of relationships. A dumb boss usually couldn't care less about how other people feel as long as the work gets done. But don't let a dumb boss make you do something dumb yourself. The worst thing you can do is to sabotage your own work to spite your boss. I see this happen all the time. A good antidote to the dumb-boss epidemic? Do your job well!
William Lundin (firstname.lastname@example.org) and his partner and wife, Kathleen Lundin, have trained managers for companies such as Ameritech and Saturn. The Lundins are the authors of When Smart People Work for Dumb Bosses: How to Survive in a Crazy and Dysfunctional Workplace (McGraw-Hill, 1998).
Founder and president
Organization Development Consultants
One pitfall in managing your boss is to see it as a game that needs to be strategized and won. Don't spend time concocting paths to outsmart or maneuver around your boss. And trying to make your boss change is like tilting at windmills. It's futile. The best strategy is simple: Make yourself indispensable. That way, your boss will come to you for assistance and advice. Then you don't have to worry about working around him — because he's working with you.
Roger Fritz has worked as an educator, a manager, a corporate executive, and a university president and is the author of 32 books. He is now a consultant in the field of change. His clients include such companies as AT&T, IBM, Caterpillar, and Motorola.
A version of this article appeared in the April 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.