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Talking Back PUBLIC ACCESS

When Bosses Don't Communicate Openly, What Can You Do? Try this at Your Own Risk.

[+] Author Notes

Ronald A. L. Rorrer is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center.

Mechanical Engineering 128(08), 30-31 (Aug 01, 2006) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2006-AUG-2

Abstract

This article deals with various ways of handling bosses. There are times when a manager does not or would not communicate properly to an employee. There are also times when a co-worker is closer to the manager than the employee himself, and this co-worker allocates tasks. This scenario most of the time becomes frustrating and unacceptable by employees who do not get their task allocations or other valuable information from their managers, rather receiving it from some other subordinate. In this scenario, the author suggests it is better to talk to the subordinate clearly that enough is enough and any task allocated by him/her or information will not be accepted. It might create some problems for the employee; however, it may happen that the manager gets a clarity that the employee must be talked to directly rather than through a subordinate.

Article

There are some difficult bosses in this world. Oh, I'm sure they're not among any of you who are bosses reading this article, but many bosses are, in fact, difficult to deal with-often because they do not communicate directly, openly, or in a timely manner. Those of you who are employees can minimize the pain if your boss intentionally or unintentionally circumvents you in the communication process. And you won't have to quit your job.

A difficult boss almost always has a favorite subordinate, and invariably it is not you or me. If you met me, you'd know why it isn't me, but you are still wondering why it isn't you. The favorite is often a useful intermediary. Someone in that role can work for you, without his or his boss's knowledge.

Consider this scenario: The boss's pet informs you that he and the boss plan to shuffle some responsibilities. They will give part of your work responsibilities to a more senior coworker and assign you a less desirable task. This messenger, mind you, is not your supervisor, but is even with you in the corporate hierarchy. That means your boss had a discussion about your responsibilities not with you, but with someone else whose only connection to the whole affair is that he likes to kiss up.

This may sound far-fetched to my luckier readers, but trust me, I once found myself in just such a situation. After he dropped his bomb, I stood there thinking, "Who do you think you are?" Well, not in those exact words. Actually, I thought something else, which the editors won't print.

Then a wolfish smile crept over my face, as I realized, with clarity of thought that is rare for me, that I had a maneuver that, oddly enough, would make this situation work to my advantage.

Now let me layout some ground work. Our relationship with our boss is different from our relationships with our coworkers. When you talk to your boss, you have to edit your opinions, and hide some of your real thoughts and motives. When you talk to your coworkers you can be much more expansive. of course, it is often wise to be somewhat circumspect with your coworkers, too.

I can say things to my coworkers that I cannot say, either in substance or tone, to my boss. I want to say these things, but they are definitely career killers.

I was talking to a coworker, his favor with the boss notwithstanding, so I looked the boss's pet in the eye and said, in no uncertain tone, that I will not do the extra work and will be happy to take the hit on my annual review for not doing so.

The boss's pet was taken aback. The boss and he had laid out this plan, and I should acquiesce.

By rebuffing this individual, what series of events had I set in motion? First, I had disconnected him from the boss. He should not have implied that he and the boss decide things together. He should certainly not have let me know the decision before the boss had informed me.

Invariably, this individual goes and tells the boss what I have said. There should be no fear coursing through your veins, for the simple reason that all but the worst manager knows that you cannot give complete credibility to secondhand information. The individual relaying the information will tell it in a way that was not identical to the original statements. It is getting to be fun now, isn't it?

Occasionally, your manager will be floating an idea to see how it flies. Either way, the boss now knows what your position is and you did not have to tell him in person. There is even an element of plausible deniability to your position. I am sure that the coworker did not even get the manager's intent 100 percent correct.

So, if confronted by your boss, respond with, "Oh, that is what you meant? I did not get that from your minion." Or you can say that, even though when you first heard the idea you were resistant, upon further reflection you realized the value of it. Both you and your boss know that you are waffling, but if this is the greatest compromise you have to make in a year, you are having a better year than I have ever had.

At this point, you may be tempted to think that the value of this method is to let the boss know that you can dig your heels in the ground. You would be sorely mistaken to make that interpretation. Actually, if this is what is transmitted to your manager, you have overdone it. You want this to be as subtle a form of manipulation as possible.

In the best of all worlds, your boss's response should go in the following sequence. First he should look at his confidant and think in disgust or dismay that the fellow has blown it. Second, he moves on to much easier prey. I mean issues. If handled properly, this occurs with minimal if any negative repercussions to you.

Now let me contradict myself. This strategy can also be used in a preemptive manner. I have never been the boss's favorite. As I have become older, I realize that I don't want to be. It is infinitely easier not to be the boss's favorite. I submit that almost without fail the favorite has a lower hourly rate than you do, even if he has a higher annual salary. This is due to all of the tasks that the favorite does for the boss in order to maintain favored-employee status.

Now the preemptive strategy certainly contains more of an element of danger than the defensive strategy. Let me give an example, where the element of danger is obvious, but unfulfilled. I once worked in a company where they were transferring many of us to another location.

The company would blindside you with an ultimatum that you had two weeks to decide either to move or to accept termination. This occurred regardless of how long you had worked at the company.

Personally, while I was not that excited about being transferred, I was certainly offended by the two-week ultimatum. In addition, the transfer package was to a higher- cost metropolitan area with no increase in pay. I let it be known indirectly, via the favored coworkers, that while not excited about the transfer, I found the twoweek ultimatum unacceptable.

For the next two years, until I left the company, my friends, my enemies, and other employees would tell me that they had been in a meeting and had seen my name on the top ten of the transfer list. I think I was actually number 2. It seemed like I was there for over a year or more. Virtually everyone else on the list was given the ultimatum and the list was continually updated. However, in that time I had not been given the ultimatum about being transferred.

The element of danger associated with this example is that you raise the hackles of a manager enough so that he implements the plan just to see your response. Nobody said it was going to be without risk.

Now let me summarize. This for you to be completely subversive in your organization- only a little. Actually, it is proposed in order for you to exert some slight control over your own situation.

The less you have to confront your manager, whether or not you are right, the better off you are. In addition, the more that you can manipulate the corporate kiss-up, the more you will enjoy your job and contribute to the corporate bottom line. So see, there is something for everyone in this concept.

If you are a manager, there are two things for you to consider. First, there is obvious employee reluctance to do certain things. Sometimes it is justified and sometimes it's not. The more important thread that runs through both anecdotes (and others not told here) is the lack of direct communication between the manager and individual employee.

When the boss knows, for six months to a year ahead of time, that you are going to be transferred, but doesn't tell you-and you have just finished a $20,000 remodel on your house-things get justifiably rather testy in the relationship. In addition, I imagine I'm not the only one offended when a manager is making decisions about me in collusion with someone at or even below my level.

It should be considered a given that secondhand information, whether from a minion or not, is destructive to both confidence and trust between you and your subordinates. Many of the situations that occur in the working world are outside of the control of both boss and worker.

If you are really a Machiavellian manager, you can manipulate your relationships to your advantage from the other side. I have never seen this accomplished well by a manager, despite his having inherent Machiavellian tendencies. Of course, when done well, it would indeed be invisible. The most important thing for you as a manager is to be grateful that I don't work for you. All right, I wouldn't actually do any work.

Many bosses are difficult to deal with because they do not communicate directly, openly, or in a timely manner. When the boss knows far ahead of time about your transfer and doesn't tell you, it makes for a testy relationship.

Grahic Jump LocationMany bosses are difficult to deal with because they do not communicate directly, openly, or in a timely manner. When the boss knows far ahead of time about your transfer and doesn't tell you, it makes for a testy relationship.

Copyright © 2006 by ASME
Topics: Risk
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