Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Who's the Boss?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

Q Dear Authors,

My boss was promoted five months ago to an executive level position and I was promoted to his previous position as a Department Manager. He continues to give assignments to my direct reports, bypassing me in the process. I have discussed this with him more than once, and on each occasion he got irritated with me. He will typically change his behavior for a few days, then resort back to bypassing me and going straight to my directs. I feel disrespected and don’t know what else I can do without harming our relationship. What should I do?

Caught in the Middle

A Dear Caught,

You are indeed in an awkward position. You’ve confronted the problem, it’s with your boss, and your boss still isn’t coming around. This is the person who writes your performance review and as such will have some influence over your next rent or house payment. This is also a person who is supposed to be a skilled manager. Bringing up the fact that your boss has promised to comply and then hasn’t lived up to his word could easily sound like an attack on his integrity. In short, you’re preparing for a mini up-hill performance review with your boss about a fairly serious problem over which you have little or no control. The stakes are about as high as they get and your odds for success look bleak.

So much for the pep talk.

Typically when we teach individuals how to motivate others who are doing something that is out of line, we suggest that it’s best to start with the reasons the other person needs to stop doing what they’re doing. That is, it’s best to explain natural consequences. Anyone can make threats or use power, but this often only adds tension. Besides, you want the other person to comply for the right reasons. So, start by explaining what’s happening as a result of the existing behavior.

In your case, your boss giving assignments to your direct reports without going through you has some fairly obvious natural consequences. Your direct reports are being put in an awkward position—should they follow their new marching orders or should they stick to their old priorities? They’re caught between the demands of two different leaders. This, of course, should never happen. In addition, you’re stuck wondering whether your direct reports are doing what they said they would or whether they’ve been given another assignment. You end up having to watch them more closely than either you or they would like.

Now that your boss has agreed to comply and obviously hasn’t done so, you have an even greater problem. Your boss isn’t living up to his word. Now the issue is a matter of trust, and that’s a whole new challenge with a whole new set of natural consequences. You can’t count on him to stick to an agreement, and as trust between you and your boss drops, your relationship suffers. You can’t predict important elements of your job and you’re starting to feel resentful. Your boss is clearly out of line; if you haven’t talked to him about the relationship issue, then hold this new conversation.

You also might want to find out if your boss faces an ability barrier. Perhaps it’s difficult for your boss to track you down when he needs to get something done, or some other factor tempts him into going straight to your employees. Identifying and reducing such an ability barrier could be the easiest solution. Start by pointing out that your boss continues to work around you, and ask if there is some reason he doesn’t involve you—is there something making it difficult or even impossible at times?

In most cases, explaining natural consequences and removing ability barriers is enough to motivate a change. Also in most cases, if the person won’t come around no matter what you explain, you can start the disciplinary process or move to power—but only do this as a last resort.

If it does come down to power—no amount of sharing consequences or problem solving works—then you’re left with the question: Should you go to your boss’s boss? This is certainly a high-risk strategy and might be viewed as a big mistake by both bosses. Your boss wonders why you ratted him out. Your boss’s boss wonders why you can’t work it out on your own. I think I’d start floating resumes before I’d ever talk to boss’s boss unless I was quite certain that (1) my boss’s boss would understand and take the appropriate action and (2) my own boss wouldn’t take it out on me.

So what’s a person to do? I’d return to my boss with a full list of all of the consequences of all of his behaviors along with a lengthy discussion on what I could do to make it easy for the boss to include me in the loop—before I’d decide between coping and leaving.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

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