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Passion, People and Principles

Getting the Boss to Change

post # 64 — April 30, 2006 — a Careers post

One of the most common types of questions I receive is how one can change one’s boss. The following is a typical example, received recently by email:

I have been at my consulting firm for approximately six years now, but we seem unable to grow as a practice and I am also concerned that I will not be able to grow personally as a trusted advisor. A large part of the explanation is that our firm has a single, traditional authority figure in which all deliverables, on-goings, and business development must pass through. Many of us are ready to begin trying our hand at business development and having our own clients that buy us and our ideas instead of the authority figure. The authority figure may say that he supports this but does not change actions or behaviors when pushed back on to relinquish control. It is frustrating for me as someone who wants to grow, learn, and make my own mistakes, and also see the practice grow. What can I do to help institute change? Could I successfully broach the subject without getting myself into hot water?

Here are some quick and simple rules to apply in situations like these:

a) People help those who are trying to help them. You must earn the trust and confidence that you want other people to place in you. Give to get. What have you done that would make the other person want to give you a chance?

b) People do things to benefit themselves, not to benefit you. You must make the case why the other person would want to give you what you want. Why is it in his / her interest to do so?

c) Present your change idea not as “Here’s what I want” but as “Here’s how I can help you.”

c) You need to understand what the other person’s wants really are. Don’t make lazy, short-hand assumptions, such as economic maximization. You need to find out what their real psychological drivers are (need for glory, need for control, insecurity, vanity) and find a way to give them what they don’t yet have enough of. Don’t be unethical or exploitative, but recognize that you’re dealing with the psychological complexities of a person here, not just a “rational, logical” situation.

d) Try and make it their idea, or at least their refinement of your idea . “Boss, I’ve been thinking about a way for us to get better at certain things. I’ve thought of a few options. What do you think of them? Can you think of ways to make them better?”

e) If you want someone else to give you what you want, ask initially for only a little. Ask for a chance, an experiment. Don’t rush, don’t get impatient -seduce, don’t assault.

cover of David Maister's co-authored book, Thr

f) Use the model described in my coauthored book Trusted Advisor, Engage (make sure the other person is willing to explore the topic); Listen (Explore their true desires and wants); Frame (help them view the issue from a reviswed perspective); Envision (Hep them see what’s attractive about a better future situation) and Commit (explore the actions necessary to get to the goal.) As the book advises, don’t rush to the next stage until you’re sure you’ve completed the prior one.

As everyone will have seen, most of these rules are identical to those you would apply in trying to get a client or a parent to give you what you want. They are all closely related, if not identical.

Is anyone else willing to share their “rules of thumb” for managing the boss?

1 Comment

Bill Peper said:

The e-mailer needs to assess the long-term implications of the current situation. The e-mailer must balance the security and future options within the firm and industry (together with its limited growth and limited business development opportunities) against the possible downside of challenging the boss. There is no right or wrong answer, but the individual must find a hobby or outlet that creates excitement and passion if it is largely absent at work.

If the e-mailer decides to raise the issue, I suggest he/she schedule a couple of hours with the boss for a “real conversation.” If it were me, I would explain that I am doing a lot of thinking about my career and how to make it better. I would explain, “I’d like to address these questions: What do you see as my future within the firm; what can I do to add the most value to the firm over the long-term; I do not have a lot of direct business development experience — what are your thoughts on my developing my own clients; etc.” I would let the boss know the specific questions on the table to allow sufficient reflection before the meeting.

Every employee has an obligation to protect his/her best interests. Staying in a job with a firm that is stagnant and does not allow its employees to develop and obtain fundamental business skills is a matter of choice. In reality, it is not the boss that is preventing the e-mailer from developing professionally — it is the employee’s choice of remaining in that environment.

posted on May 2, 2006