Bad Boss Self-Check
“I don’t have time for this stuff!” How many times have you heard yourself think that as people let you down or get stuck on the simplest problems, as they get overwhelmed by the epidemic and/or their confinement? There is no exit plan in sight to this crisis. We need to move fast and change things. Why can’t people see that and help rather than hinder?
Think of it this way: we’ve been shipwrecked and are marooned on a desert island. To be rescued, we need to mount expeditions and make smoke signals to reach civilization out there, and in the meantime, we need to establish a working society to find water, find edibles and beg the locals for help. A clock is ticking: how long before we start in-fighting about the rationing of vittles and what privileges remain from our previous lives to the point that we can no longer work together to save ourselves? Historically, castaway crews have either tried to maintain their rigid hierarchies and habits, fought over rations and… died – or, they have come together, succoring each other regardless of rank and privilege, learned from the natives, and lived. In times of deep crisis, coordination, collaboration and willingness to change are the ticket to success – not making sure all your instructions are executed promptly. There are wells to dig, fruit to gather, cabins to build.
Everyone around me has stories of top executives losing it. For these execs, moments of crisis are the ultimate command-and-control ego trip, on top of which they see opportunities to do what they always wanted to get done but couldn’t before, when others were resisting. This is very scary because as they succeed in getting their way, they also accelerate the doomsday clock to the everyone-against-everyone horizon. Unfortunately, humans get such a buzz out of being obeyed that we easily get lost in the command-and-control frenzy, at the worse possible time.
Of course we need to give clear directions and instructions – everyone is losing their bearings and they need to see that someone knows what they’re doing and that there is a path to get out of this mess. But we also need to realize that our first priority is taking care of everybody: both the energetic “I’ll do it” types and the more reticent “leave me alone” ones. Everyone.
How can we tell that we’re falling in the bad boss trap? We don’t want to stop having ideas and making plans, or taking decisions. But we can look at how we react when people query what we’re doing and what – or have issues of their own. From what people tell me of what is happening to them, I’ve put together a quick checklist:
Only you can see the path forward
Belief is an emotion – the feeling that you are right is, well, a feeling. The conviction that only you are right and no one else gets it, is a neurotic feeling. Being confident of one’s chosen path is a genuine ingredient of success – certitude brings followers. But not acknowledging that other people might be equally right from their perspective is plain dumb. You don’t know what they know or see what they see. Divergent thinking, which means keeping your mind open to alternative visions and a broad pallet of options is a critical skill in uncertain, fast changing situation. It opens up the survival question of: how long do we need to stick with the plan and when do we have to change it?
Do you answer?
When someone shows up with a query or looking for a go ahead on an initiative, do you answer? Execs in time of crisis get to be decision-making bottlenecks and overloaded with the sheer number of things to do, so they typically stop answering. As an executive, it’s easy to feel that people should be content with receiving instructions (just stand by until I tell you what to do) and that they have no time to lose with answering fool questions. I say, they do is the right way to run this show. Except that it isn’t – it actually is a disastrous way to run things. What is needed in a crisis is coordination more than command.
Answering is the job – and directing the questioner to others working on the same topic (it is not uncommon to discover that several people are tackling the same issue and working against each other – without ever being aware of it).
Many initiatives or questions will sound strange or off point because we’re so focused on what we believe needs to be done. But others see things we don’t see and know things we don’t know. The default mode should be “go ahead,” with a quick mental check:
- Is it dangerous? Is doing this going to make things noticeably worse?
- Is it costly? Is it going to use A LOT of resources with an unclear outcome (in which case, ask for clearer explanations)
- Is it selfish? Is it for their own profit at the expense of everyone else’s
If not, you don’t need to fully understand the ins and outs of the proposal to encourage it. You don’t need to take it under advisement, and say “I’ll get back to you when I’ve studied this more deeply.” They know you won’t. The magic words are “what can I do to help?”
Coordinate, don’t command. Support, don’t control.
Do you say thank you?
Saying thank you is good practice everyday of course, but of special importance in a crisis. Regardless of how you feel about their contribution, everyone believes they’re giving it their all and going above and beyond what is required of them. Saying thank you when they do goes a long way to reassure people they’re part of the collective effort. In practice, this means saying thank you all day long, to everybody, not something we’re typically good at.
If you find yourself not saying thank you because there is no time, or nothing is being completed well enough, take a mental pause and give yourself a stern talking to. Go and say thank you to someone. Right now.
Do you ask for more reporting?
Not only bad bosses don’t answer when you need their input, but to add insult to injury they ask for more reporting – right when you’re busy keeping things afloat. From a command-and-control perspective, this makes sense. Since so many things need now to be taken under advisement, constant reporting about everything is needed to decide. In a fast moving, hectic situation, this is a sure way to drive everyone nuts and simultaneously lose their respect and make them really angry with you.
The instinct to ask for more reporting when you’re not at the frontline is natural, and confinement makes it worse, since you can’t go to the frontline. People are already sharing horror stories of being snowed under videoconferences and conference calls while there is work to do.
Yes, you need to keep posted on evolving issues and key new projects. But that means “tell me how it goes,” not more reporting.
For any new report you ask for – kill an old one.
Do you blame the people doing the work?
Finally, what makes bad bosses so hateful is that not only they don’t help, and they burden you with absurd reporting demands, but on top of everything they blame the people on the frontline doing the real work. Of course no one is working exactly to standards and procedures – it’s a crisis. People are overwhelmed, logistics are failing, they need to make do and keep on keeping on.
It’s tempting to blame the frontline for screwing up because, you know what? They will screw up. They fail because the whole system is letting them down and asking them to work without the proper staff, materials, equipment or instructions. So no matter how tempting – desist. Don’t blame frontline staff. Go and yell at a piece of furniture instead.
Jerks in normal times become super-jerks in a crisis, no big surprise there. We know who they are and we watch them follow the jerk playbook. No debate there. But there is another more disquieting question: is the crisis situation turning us, unwittingly, into jerks as well?
- Do we keep curious about other people’s perspectives and visions, even when we have chosen our own path?
- Are we answering promptly every request (“I don’t know,” “tell me more,” “go ahead and let me know” are all valid answers)
- Are we saying thank you, and thank you – and thank you again?
- Are we calling people up for chats and reviews rather than asking for reporting?
- Are we disciplined in never blaming frontline staff no matter how badly they’ve screwed up?
The first rule of any crisis is: don’t make things worse – through either action or inaction. We have to acknowledge that in times of trouble we are all emotionally compromised – and these leaders who sound so righteous and stern are as well. Of course we are emotional wrecks – we are losing people close to us, losing things we’ve worked for all our lives. Of course it’s unbearable. But we can still take a deep breathe and step on our mental balcony and self-check. When all goes to hell, what will pull us through is coordination + motivation, not command + discipline. In times of crisis, not being a bad boss is already being a good boss.