Managing a Challenging Manager


This post was originally published on March 25, 2013.


A wonderful recent college grad was seeking advice … about how to give advice.  Her organization is one that’s trying to do the right thing by giving the front line (where she is) lots of feedback AND asking for lots of feedback from them to their managers.  This can be very challenging, because though the system is set up for feedback, not every manager is. “Why?” she wondered out loud to me,”does this guy not seem to ‘get’ anything I’m saying?”  She asked me how I thought she could give feedback that got through.

Almost everywhere I have ever worked or consulted, the front lines did not feel like the line “above” them truly listened to feedback — even when they claimed they wanted it. How is this possible? And what do you do about it. Two things.

First, it’s that old walk-in-the-moccasins thing. Kids complain about parents, parents complain about teachers, teachers about administration…and everybody complains about congress! But try serving in these jobs and you quickly find out that they are bombarded by many perspectives and competing voices; as an Israeli once said to me on the streets of Jerusalem, “Two Jews, three opinions.” That’s the truth about all of us; to a boss or a coach, one person wants order, while another demands flexibility, and you change the context and those same people will flip sides. I am not saying, “whatever a boss, teacher or congresswoman does is right.”  I’m saying that if you want to be effective with them, you first have to TRY to understand the variety of forces that tend to impinge upon them.

The second thing to do is act like YOU are “the” leader in the situation.  That’s hard! You don’t have the title, the pay, the sticks, carrots, reputation, perhaps the age or experience. So,what do you have?  The capacity to do what leaders do:  encourage the other — in this case the boss; describe why something is in their best interest (in leadership-speak we call this “sharing a vision” of success); ask how you can support them, share tools and knowledge you have.  Of course, these actions have to be filtered into an appropriate context.  Thus, for example, I don’t walk up to the Dean of the Law School and pretend he should listen to me as though I’m the Chancellor of Berkeley to whom he reports. But I do for example encourage him. I listen for how I can help. I talk about “my issues” in the context of the values that I know he cherishes for his institution. I share knowledge from my unique vantage point that might be useful.  I try to “walk” the talk of the institution.  And I do my best to open myself completely to his feedback and input; so that I grow, but also to model the way of listening eagerly to feedback, which is what I hope he and others to whom I report will reciprocate.

So, on the one hand (or since I’m talking about the proverbial moccasins, on the one foot): Respect the position, the title, the suit of authority and the pressures that your manager  must feel.  And then do your best to offer everything you can to help the person in the suit to thrive.

I hope this might help as you:

Lead with your best self!