Tough Talk with Your Boss: A Lack of Clear Direction

Posted by Andrea Hopke on Thu, Jan 16, 2014

The NY Times posted an article about a recommendation made by Bank of America Merrill Lynch to its junior bankers: try to take four days off a month, on the weekends. The article references similar conversations going on in other financial institutions seeking ways to address a culturally embedded expectation of working extremely long hours. For those just starting in Wall Street financial services, the work must initially be a huge rush, exciting, compelling, inviting - but the pace is simply not sustainable.


Commenters to the article mentioned a recurring experience - one we see in many organizations where management is weak. The boss walks by, dumps a load of work on the desk on a Friday afternoon with very little background or direction, and wants it Monday morning. The term for such a person - seagull manager - became popular after Ken Blanchard's book Leadership and the One Minute Manager (1985) immortalized it in print:  "Seagull managers fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, then fly out."  Nearly twenty years later, it's still a regular practice in some organizations - creating a culture of frustration and passive/aggressive interactions. 

What's really odd and interesting about the suggested solution is that it speaks to the worker bee - take time off - without addressing the leadership issues its managers may need help tackling, all of which create the current culture. Prioritization, effective communication, proactive problem solving, goal setting, collaboration, etc.

For those of us who own and run our own businesses, the concept of a 7 day week certainly isn't new - but we do have a choice. What happens when you feel there is little choice when you are working for someone else - if you want the job, you want to figure out a way to make it work out. The cultural expectations have been set long before you walked in the door. What's feasible? Any way you look at it, it will be a tough talk to have.

Based on a recent Clearwater Consulting Group survey, 89% of responders needed to tackle a tough conversation. 35% of those responding said it was with their boss. The balance was split evenly between peers and direct reports.

Top of the list for the topics of the conversations was dealing with a difficult personality (52%), followed by addressing lack of accountability and lack of clear direction (both at 36%).

What if the tough talk you're about to have is with your boss (who happens to be a difficult personality) about lack of clear direction?

Here are 3 choices to get you thinking about possible next steps:

  1. Ignore it, hoping that someone else will tackle your boss with the truth; unfortunately, given the research on how we all avoid difficult conversations (often more than a month; sometimes more than a year) and how bad we are at them, this is unlikely. And you’ll soon leave because the lack of integrity of working for a poor leader will begin to weigh on you. In the late 1990s, Buckingham and Coffman first pointed to the fact that people left managers, not companies. That remains an infallible fact. 

  2. Get some relevant information. Suggest to your boss or to HR that your entire team, including your boss, go through a 360 degree evaluation process, so that everyone gets input at the same time and can benefit from a team-wide experience of learning, sharing, and committing to necessary changes. 

  3. Be brave and have the difficult conversation with your bossbut prepare well for it by focusing on what you need, not on what is wrong with him or her. Let's say you are committed to the job, you love the company, you want to succeed here – but your manager shows lack of direction. There is no clarity, no apparent vision about where the department is headed or how it fits into the organizational strategy. Your manager isn’t fighting for what the team needs, he did not involve the team the last time a major decision was made, she shares no credit for successes. The list is long. Pick one that matters most to you, then prepare by talking about what you need in order to succeed and help your boss succeed. 

Some considerations for option 3:

Being prepared for the conversation shows you value your manager's time. Say it. "I value your time." You are role modeling the behavior you need from your manager.  

Align yourself with their goals. Helping the department meet its goals means he succeeds (and you do, too). In order to achieve those goals, what do you need from him/her? What does your manager need from you? Set the conversation up as a collaboration - you both need each other to succeed.  "I know you're charged with opening the office in China next year and it's a very tight timeline. I am 100% committed to supporting that work through my analyses of the supply chain issues. It would be really helpful to have a weekly meeting for 30 minutes to review status."  You are problem solving together rather than pointing fingers or blaming which is a typical response in a hierarchical situation where goals, processes, and expectations are unclear.

If you have ideas for solutions to persistent problems your boss finds challenging, offer them. Be a solution seeker versus a complainer. In the preparation sheet, identify some of the patterns you have observed - these are facts of a situation that help lay the foundation for change in the discussion. "I've noticed that the last 2 times I've given you material, you put a note on it that you need more backup. Do you have a sample of what you're looking for I could use as a template?" 

Finally, these are messy and often complicated situations. How could they be otherwise? The bigger picture is that this entire drama is about changing culture and that is a huge undertaking. But even in the day to day, these situations involve people and we are fundamentally complicated and messy! In the words of Franklin Covey - seek first to understand. And while that initially meant understand the other person, it also means to understand yourself: what your goals are, what sustains you, what is important, what is in and out of integrity for you. These are the facts of your particular situation that will help you tackle any tough conversation with greater clarity, which is what you're asking from your boss.

"People almost never change without first feeling understood." - Douglas Stone, "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most”
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Topics: corporate culture, improve workplace relationships, difficult conversations

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