The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Leadership | Managing People

September 2013

BE A BETTER BOSS!
And how to handle a bad one

By Andrew Silberman

Eight hot summers ago, an editor asked me to write a series of articles on bad bucho, or managers. Through confidential employee interviews, I learned about many managers who engaged in practices that ranged from ineffective to borderline illegal. And some, such as the so-called Sekuhara Sam, surely crossed the line.

Again I have received a similar request for the first issue of the ACCJ Journal. “Can you address how to deal with a boss who always thinks he is right, can never say sorry, always wins arguments, butts in, etc.? And how not to be such a boss?”

So let’s swing the ax at this prickly topic. I’ve enlisted the help of Bill Morachnick, president, Santa Fe Reynolds Tobacco International, GmbH, and Dan Nestle, long-time Japan hand, now a senior marketing communications manager for a non-profit organization in the US.

Both Morachnick and Nestle have held leadership positions with companies and organizations in and outside Japan, and Morachnick has been an ACCJ member since the early 1990s. Like us, they’ve both have had their share of good and bad bosses, and based on what I have heard from those who work directly with these two, they are good, or even great, bosses themselves.

How to handle a bad boss

Morachnick answered my query with the following. “A good approach is to establish a very clear understanding of your own goals as well as those of the company and your direct supervisor.

“And when it comes to your supervisor, I’m not talking strictly about the goals that are part of the company review process, but really understanding your supervisor’s career goals, life priorities, and other important aspects.

“If you understand this, then it is within your control to align your goals and those of your supervisor to consistently create win-win scenarios. Within this type of relationship, it should put you in a much better position to correct behaviors that you find difficult or counter-productive.”

So how about when you want to change a boss’s behavior? “It is better to avoid starting with something like, ‘I’m sorry that I have to raise this issue with you, but for the last several months I have been frustrated due to … (fill in whatever it is about your boss that is driving you nuts!), and I’d like to talk to you about how to change it.’ ”

This direct approach may work, but you run the risk that it puts your boss on the defensive and causes your relationship to deteriorate further.

An alternative approach is to begin with: “I’ve been giving some thought to how we can work most effectively together to make sure we nail our goals this year, and I’d like to share them with you when you have a moment.”

“I can tell you that, as a boss, I would be in a very different state of mind listening to the second approach as opposed to the first one.”

However, note that for this second approach to work, you must have first clearly shared and understood each other’s goals.

We’ll find better cheese!

Nestle shared one of his favorite bad boss stories, this from the CEO of an internet company in Japan.

“This CEO felt he was so right, so justified in his convictions, that any dissent or difference of opinion among his staff was due to their immaturity, or their being closed-minded. With morale at a low point, he decided to rally the troops by buying us each a copy of what he felt was the greatest motivational book of our times, titled Who Moved My Cheese?, by Spencer Johnson.

“He was so convinced that we’d come around to his thinking that he assigned us all to read it and give our feedback. Well, as more of us read the book, we came around to a new way of thinking, but it wasn’t at all what the boss had envisioned.

“Rather than fall in line, we started to see that the boss was the one moving our cheese and, dammit, we were going to find new cheese. He didn’t take it very well . . . and he never did get around to asking us for that feedback.” Nestle handled that boss in the most popular (and wise) way. Nestle left.

A recent Daily Infographic (dailyinfographic.com) identified five of “the worst bossy traits,” namely, being a public belittler, liar, demeaner/condescender, humiliater/embarrasser, and micromanager/nitpicker.

We’ve all known at least one boss with one or more of these traits. One option you might want to consider is a conversation where you share your impression of the micromanagement of your job, for example.

Stay away from any absolutes (always/never) and avoid “you” messages. “You always butt in” will get you nowhere. Rather, aim for something along the lines of, “Yesterday when I was talking with the vendor and you interrupted and took over the conversation, I felt blocked from doing my assigned task.”

That may at least have a chance of putting the issue into your boss’s conscious awareness.

Speaking of awareness, Nestle raised a point I’ve seen in several clients myself. “Sometimes a bad boss is just a person who can’t cope with anxiety, so he pushes it down to you.

“If you know that anxiety is driving his behavior, you may be able to mitigate the bad boss effect if you can figure out where that anxiety comes from. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, but it’s worth a try. Who knows? You may be able to turn around your relationship.”

The more important question

How can you avoid being one of these bad bosses? First, don’t just assume that you aren’t one. You need feedback. Many companies like to use 360-degree evaluations, with anonymous reporting.

But here’s something radical. Let those reporting directly to you know that you’re working on improving everything about the organization, so naturally you want to start with you.

“How am I doing in terms of my communication and management style? What would you like me to do more of? Less of? How can I be a better boss for you?”

A great way to do this is with your team around the table, with each person writing out their ideas and then sharing them verbally with you, in front of everyone else. If you’re uncomfortable with this idea, then consult a facilitator.

And then … open your ears, eyes, heart and soul—everything except your mouth—and listen to what those reporting to you say.

In addition, take notes. Encourage them. Say nothing in defense. After each one speaks, end with a sincere “thank you.”

Will this guarantee 100 percent honest feedback? No. But nothing else will, either. I have seen “anonymous” feedback backfire far more often than this approach.

Given that you know the negative traits of bad bosses, and are conscientious enough to want to avoid expressing those traits, you’re moving in the right direction.

To make sure you keep moving forward, you need to know how you’re perceived by your current group of subordinates. And the best way to do that is to ask. •

Andrew Silberman - ACCJ Journal

Andrew Silberman is president and chief enthusiast of AMT Group (www.amt-group.com) and an elected governor of the ACCJ.

Andrew@amt-group.com

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Sometimes a bad boss is just a person who can’t cope with anxiety, so he pushes it down to you.”

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[The] direct approach may work, but you run the risk that it puts your boss on the defensive.”