Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Absentee Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a manager who seems to be missing in action. In all fairness to my manager, my work is independent and in a different location. Nonetheless, his communication is superficial, and he doesn’t act as if he’s genuinely interested in my performance. He’s difficult to find (always in meetings), fails to provide me with crucial information, and continually misses deadlines on information or decisions that I depend upon to do my job effectively. I decided to call him every other week to brief him on my work outlook, issues, successes, etc., but when I do he acts as though he’s in a hurry and I’m taking up his time. I truly find my work rewarding, but working for this unengaged manager is frustrating.


Cut off

Dear Cut Off,

You face an interesting decision. Do you talk to someone who doesn’t appear to care about your job, your results, or your relationship–and by extension might not care about any of your concerns? You weigh the possibilities and wonder if the odds favor you or not. He might suddenly “feel your pain” and take corrective action of some sort. He might smile politely and do nothing. He might act upset and say it’s not his fault that you’re located in a different building and then resent you for attacking his leadership style. Hmmm. What will happen?

So the real question is: What can you do to increase the odds that the outcome will be beneficial?

Before I offer any suggestions, let me say that our own research has revealed that the single best predictor of satisfaction with leadership is frequency of interaction. The more two people interact, the greater the satisfaction. People who are directed and reviewed by individuals in different buildings, or even different states, universally dislike the arrangement. You’re not alone. People rightfully wonder: How can my boss evaluate my performance, coach me, provide me with career advice, mentor me, and sponsor me to a better position without ever seeing me in action?

Within a corporate context, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. The more accurate expression would be: out of sight, out of mind. I mention this because you may want to take a job where you won’t constantly be facing such a large barrier. No matter what you do, the distance can be daunting.

If you love the job itself and really want to stick with it, here are few things you might consider.

First, ask what’s in it for your manager to correct the problems you mentioned. He is causing you grief by not providing you with essential information, meeting deadlines, or making timely decisions. You feel your pain, but if you can’t link his relatively insensitive and unprofessional behavior to something he cares about, you’re dependent on him caring about your pain–something that currently doesn’t seem to affect him.

So, here’s what you have to ask. In what way does his poor performance affect you–and then affect him? For instance, when he doesn’t give you time-sensitive information, you have to track him down, interrupt him in meetings, leave notes with secretaries, call his boss to see if he or she can find him etc. This can’t be pleasant for him. When he doesn’t provide you with X, harming your performance in Y, this is how it affects the department–which in turn causes problem Z for him. The point here is that if you only enter the conversation with the idea of his changing for the sole purpose of making your life better, it’s harder to achieve the results you want. Link his existing bad behavior to the existing negative consequences he’s already experiencing.

Second, ask what can be done that doesn’t call for him to change his behavior. How can you manipulate the environment? The idea of talking on the phone to update him may indeed interrupt him. How about e-mail that he can read at his leisure? There are some fairly decent video conferencing solutions out there. Maybe an electronic face-to-face will work for him. How can you get his support staff to be cued to send you critical information the minute he gets it? The point here is that it’s far easier to manipulate processes and *things* than it is to change human behavior. Look at environmental solutions.

Third, if you do choose to talk to him directly about the problem, bring your best skills into play. In our book Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, we teach a step-by-step process for dealing with crucial confrontations. Here are a few tips from the book.

Be careful with your conclusions. You may believe that your boss is uncaring and unreliable (you didn’t say this, however you could easily conclude this), but this should never be your starting position. Pick one of the behaviors that has you concerned and deal with that behavior only. Don’t pile on a bunch of problems. In a similar vein, take special care not to pile on inflammatory conclusions. Trade “You’re unreliable, insensitive, and uncaring” for “Yesterday I was expecting the O’Malley workup but it didn’t come. I was wondering what happened.” Then stick to the problem of not delivering on his promises. Deal with untimely information, lack of support, and the other problems at a different time. Start small. Stick to behaviors.

Once you’ve decided which issue to deal with, carefully unbundle it. Even though you think you’ve picked one problem, it could easily have several component parts. For instance, if the problem you pick is a pattern, focus on the repeated nature of the behavior. Talk about the pattern, not a single instance. If the problem is now harming your relationship (and it sounds as if it is), then this may be the problem you want to address. Talk about the problem (say, not meeting deadlines) from the point of view of how it’s affecting how you work together. “When I don’t get what I need from you, I end up trying to track you down and I don’t want it to feel like I’m hounding you. I can see that you don’t like it and I’m starting to feel reluctant to follow up. And yet, if I don’t find a quick resolution, it affects my performance.” Pick one problem, unbundle it, and then pick the issue that matters the most. Ask: “What is the one thing I really want to see change?” and then focus on this.

Good luck as you step up to a tough situation. Prepare carefully, be on your best behavior, and hopefully you’ll start to resolve some of the problems that have you rightfully frustrated, one at a time.

Kerry Patterson

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