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Fostering Relationships: Dealing with a Controlling Boss

Posted Jan 23 2010 1:43pm

How do you deal with a boss who makes decisions and policies that are negatively impacting the work place, but they continue to make them anyway because they have an inflated need for control?

1. Be empathetic. For most of the decisions your boss is making, there is a good and valid reason. Many times, those in leadership know more about the reasons than they are either willing or able to share. However, this isn't an excuse for acting powerless. Make sure to at least ask for the reason(s) behind the policy. You can also request empathy from them. Next time they set a policy that is hindering your ability to do good work, ask them (in a calm, cool and positive tone) for suggestions on how they would operate if they were in your position. Ask them for advice. This gesture will feed their need for power, but also force them to really think about the practical impact of the decision or policy.

2. Ask for changes. Powerful people are just like everyone. They are annoyed by people who challenge their opinions and decisions. However, powerful people also respect those who demonstrate power and have little respect for the weak. Your controlling boss won't enjoy you asking for changes, but they just might respect you for it. If you do it the right way.

3. Embrace risk. There is always a risk when you challenge the system, when you don't just lay down and when you try to take the lead. That is why it is very important to weigh the consequences and make sure it is worth the risk to fight for whatever you want to fight for. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is not.

4. Start small. If you have a controlling boss, you probably have a list of things you would change if you were in charge. Write down this specific list and prioritize them in order of size of difficulty for your boss to change. Begin requesting changes, but start with the small things. If you win a few small ones, this might give you some "change capital" to use for the larger items; especially if those small changes dramatically improve the performance of your part of the company or organization. Even if you don't get the larger ones changed, you at least made a few changes happen.

5. Start big. You can also try the reverse strategy. Ask for something big to be changed, but have an "other-pocket request" that is smaller and that you can use if they reject the first one.

6. State the benefits. When you do ask for changes, back up the request with a few clear explanations of how the current way is hurting the organization and a few valid reasons for your requested change. Try your best to leave you and your boss out of it. Speak in terms of the potential upside for the organization.

7. Be an ally. Although difficult to put into practice, your boss is more likely to relinquish control if they learn to trust you more. Trust is a by-product of three things: reputation (I don't know you, but someone I trust does), repetition (you have repeatedly exhibited behavior that makes me trust you) and relationship (I know you and I like you, so I trust you). Many times in a formal organizational structure, it is difficult to earn all three, but that is your goal. The most powerful one of the three is relationship. Find some small and large ways to foster a relationship with your boss. After all, they are human (even if there are times you swear they don't have a belly button).

8. Choose positive responses. Never respond to your boss with sarcasm, cynicism, anger, jealousy or greed. These times require you to be calm, professional and positive. Therefore, don't engage with them when you are filled with a negative emotion. Take a day or two to think about it and chat with them when you have a calm head.

9. Face to face. Even though you need to remain positive, these interactions are certainly not going to all be positive. There will be difficult conversations. One of the reasons why your boss is controlling is because it works. Most people run from conflict and choose not to engage or ask for what they need because are afraid. They don't think its their place. They aren't willing to stomach the consequences. You need to be a stronger leader and be willing to engage in difficult conversations with your boss face to face.

10. Its not personal. This is not true in all cases, but many times the policies and situations your controlling boss has created is a response to their need for perfection (or their need to avoid conflict). It is not about you. So, don't take it personally. Ie - its not that they don't trust you or want to see you fail, they just don't know any other way to lead.

(11. Get a new job. Life is too short to work for a leader who doesn't know how to lead.)
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