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Your Boss is Not Your Problem

In these uncertain times, it's easy to want assign blame to everything going on around us - our bosses, unrelenting schedules, even our self-imposed expectations. But our default of blaming others or ourselves for what is going on in our world could actually be a pattern that costs us in the long-run.

I've had my share of unrelenting bosses. The kind of boss that makes everyone feel like they are walking on eggshells. That is liable to fly off the handle at any moment. That has constructed a complex series of systems that cost the organization time, money, efficiency, and morale - all because it helps the boss maintain a perception of control or it suits their fancy. They are notoriously low in self-awareness and giving them feedback is out of the question, though they would tell you otherwise.

The amount of hours I have spent analyzing these personalities, talking about their habits and complaining about their demanding and demoralizing behavior over countless lunches to coworkers is somewhat embarrassing. 

It is so easy to get into a cycle of blaming them for seemingly poor choices as CEOs and Executive Directors, or for the way their presence diminishes your quality of life, or for their seeming lack of interest in mitigating their negative impact on staff.

But while these bosses represent a dying breed - once omnipresent in corporations, non-profits and in the public sector - they are not actually our problem. Our problem is our mindset and our refusal, as staff, to take 100% responsibility for the world we are creating.

To take 100% responsibility for this problem means we are ultimately the ones creating our world and our experience at any given moment. The authors of 15 Steps Towards Conscious Leadership explain this process with breathtaking clarity: "The first step in taking responsibility is to shift from believing that the world should be a particular way to believing that the world just shows up. Second, we need to shift from rigidity, close-mindedness and self-righteousness to curiosity, learning and wonder (which naturally occurs once our beliefs change)... drama in leadership and life is caused by the need to be right. Letting go of that need is a radical shift that all great leaders make."

My coaching client Emily and I have been talking about her boss for nine months. Every coaching session, she brings another scenario in which this ego-driven, oblivious, hard-driving CMO asks her for unreasonable deadlines, piles more on her plate and ignores long-term and mutually agreed upon goals.

But Emily's problem is not her boss. It’s that she refuses to push back. After a successful career working in agencies Emily jumped into startup life - working longer and longer hours and embracing the chaotic, all-hands-on-deck, scrappy new working environment. While Emily's natural style is collaborative and hard-working, she quickly realized that her desire to be liked and be seen as contributing value were leading her on the path to early burnout. Moreover, her fear of confrontation was causing her to put all the blame on her boss, who - oblivious to Emily's gentle nudges - continued to steamroll over boundaries and ignore her requests for more clarity. It was time for Emily to try a different tactic to get through.


The good news? If you are like Emily and have an unrelenting boss in your life, here are a few steps you can take today to shift towards more radical responsibility and change the dynamic:

1) Change your mind, change your boss. A creative, calm, non-judgmental mind will allow you to be infinitely more effective and responsive to any situation that arises at work. To do this you need to drop the judgement you have about whatever situation that is arising, as well as your judgement for your boss. Instead, work on cultivating compassion, practicing patience, curiosity and forgiveness: If this situation is an opportunity for growth, what can be learned here?

2) Recognize where you might be a toxic boss yourself. As Liz Wiseman identified in her excellent book Multipliers, many managers are "simply unaware of how management practices they thought to be empowering were actually limiting or restricting employees from using the intelligence they had. Their intent was quite different than their impact." According to Wiseman, we all have diminisher tenancies but can shift consciously into practices that will help us multiply the strengths, effectiveness and impact of our teams with awareness.

3) Flex into a new side of your range. Use your boss as an opportunity to practice a communication style that is outside of your comfort zone. Perhaps the interaction with your boss is asking you to be really brave, bold, assertive, directive, strategic or deferential. Whatever the stretch, see it as an opportunity to improve your ability to flex into whatever style will serve (a coach can be very helpful here). No doubt you will need familiarity with this new trick down the line in your career.

4) Take small actions for big impact. Often when confronted with an unrelenting boss, we feel trapped with a sense of hopelessness, thinking 'this will never change.' Start running small experiments every week - opening up lines of communication, asserting new boundaries, letting go of areas of control - and collect data around what works. Notice if your week-over-week experience shifts with these tiny changes.

5) Drop the complaining. It can be so tempting to gather a crew of like-minded coworkers (or a trusted spouse or friend) who will invariably take our side to commiserate and vilify our boss. Complaining perpetuates a vicious cycle that reinforces the drama triangle of villian-victim-hero and feeds on blame, thus preventing you from taking full responsibility for your circumstances and effecting meaningful change.

Taking full responsibility does not mean you are a doormat: There might be times where you need to remove yourself from the situation. But if we take full responsibility for our attitudes by dropping judgment and cultivating curiosity first, we can be more powerful, more impactful and more creative in our action-oriented response. Call out bad behavior, step away from drama (internal and external) and ultimately you will create a healthy, productive environment that nurtures the best in yourself professionally.


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