“I don’t know what to do anymore,” complained my client. “Last Monday, when I met with my boss, she told me to take the lead in the Tuesday meeting. We discussed every point and were in complete agreement. But then, the next day in the meeting, she immediately took over and said everything. Then, at the end, she turned to me to ask if I had anything to add. I really didn’t know what to say.”
Does this sound familiar? Sure, it’s your boss’s job to manage you. But in actuality many people find themselves in a position where they need to manage their boss. Whether the boss has control issues, stress triggers, or is easily offended, employees are often left shaking their head and not knowing what to do.
Figuring out your boss’s disruptive triggers is the first step in figuring out your best response to them. The most common triggers are:
- Perceived lack of respect: The brain processes lack of respect as a threat. This can trigger a flight/flight/freeze response, which shuts down the rational brain. All kinds of irrational behaviors become possible.
- Anxiety or insecurity: Even low-level anxiety or insecurity can result in defensiveness or passive aggressiveness. Bosses with anxiety or insecurity might value loyalty over results and often escalate problems when confronted.
- Control issues: Bosses who feel a lack of control may act with overt aggression or passive aggression. This is especially true when their identity is wrapped up in control, which is common for business owners and managers.
No matter what is happening, if you value your job you’re going to need some ways to handle your boss when things go wrong. Here are three tips.
1) Calm the situation
If you recognize that your boss is having an irrational or aggressive response, avoid getting drawn into the drama with these three steps:
- Reality Check: Observe the situation with your five senses then and check your sixth sense. What is happening emotionally?
- Control yourself first: slow down your breathing, acknowledge your emotions, control any impulses to judge by channeling curiosity instead. Ask yourself: why is this person feeling this way? (Consult the list above for likely triggers.)
- If it is appropriate to intervene, act with awareness and intent to be kind. If it is not appropriate to act, consider how to get out of harm’s way and reflect later on how to help your boss maintain calm in the future.
If you are aware of what your boss’s triggers are, you can sometimes use coaching questions help them become more aware of the impact of their actions and avoid difficult situations. This works when you have time with your boss before they are triggered. Coaching questions help your boss self-reflect before making a rash decision. It can be something as simple like, “So, how are you feeling about this upcoming meeting?” Give them space to process their emotions. Or before things start to heat up, you might get them to pause if you show curiosity. “I’m just curious, how did you come to that decision?” Having to explain themselves can be just the pause they need.
3) Give them credit
Help them feel in charge by giving them credit for your good ideas. If you can handle not having to take credit, you can become a trusted advisor. Even if they don’t admit it, they know who is helping them. Try saying something like, “what you said before really inspired me. I think if we [add your idea here], it would be really effective.” Or try, “I like what you were saying. What if we [insert your idea here]?” Giving your boss credit helps them solve the problem and still feel like they retain control and respect. By building your influence and demonstrating loyalty, you gain respect and value, and your boss is likely to trust you more with tasks that matter.
In general, the more understanding you can be of the stress your boss is under, the better you will be able to get through tough situations, help them avoid blow ups, and keep things running calmly and smoothly. If you find yourself shaking your head and not knowing what to do, just like my client, remember to step back and analyze the emotional situation before you start expecting things to be rational again.
Lisa Foster is an Executive Coach specializing in leadership development, emotional intelligence, and communications. For 15 years, she taught verbal analysis, argumentation, and persuasion at USC and Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. Trained to identify skill gaps and build on people’s strengths to create more success, she coaches clients looking for more influence, control, and advancement in their careers within large and small organizations. She also develops plans for individual talent development and corporation talent management using evidence-based tools that have proven to increase success.