What To Do When Your Boss Just Doesn’t Get It!

By Anne Pauker Kreitzberg December 10, 2007

What’s it like to work for a boss who resists new ideas and new ways of doing things? Well, for starters, it can be pretty demoralizing and frustrating. Especially when you know it’s the right thing to do but you just can’t budge him.

Most people avoid confrontation. Who can blame them? It’s unpleasant. Voices get raised. If you’re not the ranking person, you can only take it so far. It can be embarrassing. If it’s your boss on the other side of the table it’s even tougher. You can’t help but worry that even if the interaction seems to go ok, it’s going to come back to haunt you someday.

And then there’s the anxiety, the sleepless nights, the obsession with how to approach your boss, what to say, whether it’s worth taking on at all. Your family gets tired of hearing you rant. Your friends are full of advice they seldom take themselves. If you have staff reporting to you or you work on a team, you can bet they’re all watching and waiting to see what will happen.

Self-help workplace books often suggest that the remedy to this situation requires learning how to “manage up.” I’m not sure why, but just the idea of managing up feels a lot more manipulative, daunting and risky than “managing down.”

Let’s take a very common situation.

Your company is high on “best practices.” You are sent to a training program to learn the processes and new ways of thinking that are best practice in your area. So far, so good.

You go to the session. You learn a lot. You’re pumped up and thinking, “Wow. This could really help our team a lot.” Lots of great ideas pop into your head. You can’t wait to get back to the office and apply what you’ve learned.

Back at the office, you excitedly relay everything you learned to anyone who will listen. Soon you realize that you’re back in the real world. Not everyone is as eager as you are to dig in. They’d rather wait and see whether the boss is going to give the ok or - as they suspect more likely will happen - either push back or want to “wait for the timing to be right.”

What can you do to improve the chances of convincing your boss to incorporate the best practice processes you’ve learned? Here are ten ideas that could help.

  1. Put aside the thought that you shouldn’t have to convince her at all. You do.

  2. Realize that one of the roles of managers is to reduce the risk of failure. Any new idea raises the possibility that it’s not going to work. Acknowledging that to your boss enhances your credibility.

  3. Think: Preparation and Inspiration. You’ll never convince your boss to look at something new if a) he doesn’t fully understand it and b) he doesn’t see a compelling reason to do so.

  4. Prepare until you think you’re over-prepared. That means preparing both what you’re going to say and how.

  5. Always start from your boss’s point of view.

    • What are your boss’ key objectives or priorities this year?
      If your recommendation doesn’t contribute to them - or worse, might be a distraction or reallocation of resources - you’ll have a hard time convincing him of the immediate relevance or urgency of moving ahead.

    • How can these new processes play to her strengths?
      It will be a lot easier to demonstrate the benefits of your recommendation if they play to her strengths rather than weaknesses. No one likes to put themselves in a situation where their weaknesses are extenuated or too visible.

    • What are the potential obstacles or downsides?
      Every idea has its good and bad points. Laying these out realistically means your boss may find fewer objections.

    • How quickly will we know if something is not going well, and what can we do about it before someone else finds out?
      Your boss is more likely to be convinced if you lay out what the potential land mines are; how they might be avoided, minimized or addressed; how quickly; and at what cost.

    • How can we be at least as successful using the new process as we are today?
      People tend to resist change of any kind, even changes for the better. It’s easier for them to agree to give it a try if they can see how the change can work and that others are there to help.
  6. Present the information so that your boss is most likely to hear and understand it.

    • If your boss is a “visual” person, prepare something in writing so she can see your major points. Illustrations or graphs are essential. Avoid being too wordy.

    • If your boss is an “auditory” person, focus on what you’re going to say. Use verbal examples to clarify your points. Bear in mind that verbal people often take what you say literally.

    • A picture is still worth a thousand words (which people never seem to have the patience for anyway), especially in the Internet world.Illustrations are a must when presenting complex information or communicating via web conference.
  7. When you’re ready (not before), schedule the conversation – if possible, in person. Schedule a time when your boss can give you her full attention.

  8. When meeting with your boss, always start by asking if it is still a good time to talk and when your boss needs to end. You will need to adjust accordingly; make sure you can deliver the message in half the time you planned on.

  9. Start the meeting with a high level message and what you want your boss to do. This will set the context for the conversation and for what happens afterward. If he doesn’t want to go further, you’ll hear about it right away rather than after you make your pitch.For example: “I’m here to talk with you about the training session you sent me to last week. There were some ideas presented that I would like you to consider for our team. I’d like to take the next few minutes laying out what I heard and how we might all benefit from them. I’ve also tried to anticipate what problems might come up and have some thoughts about how we might handle them. At the end of the meeting it would be great if we could agree on some next steps.”

  10. Show your boss that you are open to his reaction and suggestions. He has the benefit of position and experience that you may not. It’s easier for people to adopt new ideas if they make them their own.

If after all this your boss still doesn’t get it, well, that’s a tough one. My suggestion: If you are still convinced you’re right, figure out the one small step forward you can get him to agree on and take it. It may be a lot slower than you had hoped but at least you’d be headed in the right direction. With any luck, you’ll pick up additional supporters along the way.

Anne Pauker Kreitzberg

Anne Pauker Kreitzberg

Anne Pauker Kreitzberg is President of Cognetics Corporation. She specializes in organizational and management effectiveness where people and technology are critical to business success. She has worked with a wide range of organizations helping leaders transform their vision into reality by aligning people, process and purpose.

A trusted advisor to business leaders for over 25 years, she created and has successfully introduced models for collaboration, performance management, workplace flexibility, and change management. Anne regularly speaks at professional conferences and authors articles addressing emerging management issues. She is a member of the faculty at the Wharton School and holds an MBA from the New York Institute of Technology and author of the Leaders in the Know blog.

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