The best bosses are leaders -- men and women who encourage open dialogue and make it easy for employees to approach them with workplace concerns.
Sadly, not all bosses fit into this category.
Consider the following boss-employee interaction, in which an organizational leader at a nonprofit publicly flayed her HR director for the "egregious" offense of suggesting an update to the organization's policy guidelines that would discourage employees from using profanity on the job.
The HR director – who had made the suggestion in an indirect attempt to curb her boss's own colorful workplace language – backed down. Familiar with their boss's defensive behavior, no one else spoke up. The profanity continued and eventually the HR director left, taking the organization’s last hope of civility with her.
Unfortunately, feedback averse bosses can be a common fixture in the workplace; if you've ever found yourself stuck in a similar situation, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there a few strategies you can use when approaching a defensive boss. Start by scheduling a face-to-face meeting, and then approach the task strategically.
Before the meeting
Self-assess to determine your role in the problem. It's important to understand and acknowledge your contribution to the issue: Has your silence, attitude, or accusations added to the tension in some way? Have you misrepresented or distorted any facts? Have your emotions gotten the best of you? Take an honest look at your own behavior.
Identify what you want the conversation to achieve. While many folks are clear on what they don’t want, they haven’t thought through what they do want to accomplish. Are you simply trying to make your boss aware of how he or she comes across? Do you expect your boss to change his or her behavior and attitude? Or do you want your boss to acknowledge his or her mistake and apologize to you? It's hard to achieve a desired effect if you’re not sure what outcome you want in the first place.
Schedule strategically. Certain times and places are better than others to deliver feedback, especially if it’s of a sensitive nature. Consider broaching the subject with your boss beforehand to determine when, where and explain why you wish to meet with him or her. Your goal is to create a safe environment that will be conducive to your boss taking in what you have to say rather than blindsiding or “sticking it” to him or her.
During the meeting
Start with assurances. Your boss may not be aware of what’s bothering you. Keep in mind that many bosses act defensively because they feel threatened in some way, i.e. they feel like you’re challenging their authority, competence, or ability to run the team. Put them at ease by providing some assurance up front about your intention for the conversation. For example, you may want to start by:
- Reassuring your boss that you understand and respect his or her position of authority in the situation
- Informing your boss that something he or she is doing is affecting your ability to perform at your best
- Outlining in specific terms the actions he or she has taken that undermine the quality of your work or have interfered with your ability to achieve your goals.
- Reinforcing your desire to build a positive working relationship
Stick to neutral observations. No one likes to be the focal point of blame. One of the quickest ways I’ve seen employees put their boss on the defensive is to launch into full-scale accusations and negative conclusions. Since you’ve prepared for this meeting with your boss, first describe the impact his or her behavior has had on you or your work before sharing any conclusions. Acknowledge your role in the situation to the fullest extent possible.
Summarize what’s been said. Emotionally-charged conversations tend to cloud people’s thinking. Keeping your cool and clarifying perspectives are useful tools that help maintain an atmosphere of respect and minimizes defensiveness to ensure you and your boss’s views are heard. Be sure to summarize what has been resolved and what remains to be resolved along with any commitments that have been made.
After the meeting
Be gracious. Saying thank you after the meeting, regardless of the outcome, is always a classy gesture of professionalism. Courtesy goes a long way and sets the stage for addressing and resolving future issues that arise.
Follow up. Constructive conversations often fail due to the lack of necessary follow-up and ongoing feedback. We have a discussion and then continue on our merry (or un-merry) way without circling back. Ideally, you and your boss will agree upon a time to “check-in” with each other in advance.
Renegotiate, if necessary. Scheduling a follow-up provides a natural opportunity for you and your boss to reassess agreed upon terms when things aren’t working out as originally anticipated.
By using these strategies to minimize defensiveness, hopefully you will experience greater success in achieving outcomes that work for both you and your boss.