You’ve probably seen the little surveys that pop up on this site from time to time. These are a way of discovering what visitors to the site care about, so I can write on topics that are directly helpful.
One of the biggest things that people want help with is “changing the wider organisation”. How might we approach this?
Our role might allow us to make sweeping changes, but it’s more likely that we have no control over the bigger picture. However, we can control what we say to our boss so they use their influence to make a difference.
The question then becomes: “I want to change my boss’s mind – how do I do it?”
Conversations with our boss can be the hardest conversations of all. Let’s step through why it’s hard, and what we can do through a good conversation that can make a difference in our organisation.
Step #0: If you have a nightmare boss, fire them if you can
Firstly, let me lay it out straight for an unlucky few. There are some bosses who are narcissistic, self obsessed, and tend to claim credit for the hard work of others. They never listen, don’t acknowledge reality or others’ points of view, and treat everything as a power game. These bosses will eventually grind every employee they have into the ground.
If you’re in this position, you already know it. None of what I’m about to outline will work for you.
If you can, I suggest you fire your boss by changing your job as soon as possible. Reach out to me on Twitter and I’ll share your resume for you.
If you’re not able to change your job that easily, then there are things you can do to manage difficult situations. I plan to write more about this in the future. In the meantime, here are some great articles for dealing with difficult bosses. I’m lucky never to have had a boss like this, but I have come across them whilst consulting.
However, most bosses are not in this category. Nobody’s perfect, but your boss may well be trying to do the right thing, and shows some signs of listening to reason and humility. If that’s the case then you have enough to move on to the next step.
Step #1: Confront your fear
Even if we don’t have a nightmare boss, the fear factor is a powerful hidden problem for many of us. Plenty of people harbour irrational fears about their boss. This is sometimes because they don’t know them well, or they assume they’re going to be awful because of a bad previous experience. This fear saps our confidence, and makes it very difficult to get anything of consequence done at all.
It’s time to be honest with ourselves for a moment. Let’s confront any fear we have about being candid and building genuine relationship with our boss.
This is something I have had to come to terms with personally. I’ve struggled with placing too much value on people’s approval my entire life. Because of this, I have a tendency to change my behaviour to match what I think are others’ expectations or desires of me. I have to be careful not to sugar-coat difficult topics. I have to push into taking the right decision even if it means people aren’t going to be happy.
If this is an area of struggle for us, we are only going to have good conversations with our boss with a similar amount of self-reflection. I’d recommend you start with the Agile Conversations book to help unpick your own communication triggers and patterns.
As an aside: if you’re managing people, you need to spend time intentionally dispelling a fear culture. I spent a lot of my time carefully crafting intentional messages to my team to get their honest feedback, so that I’m not that boss that allows fear to propagate in their team. Make sure you explicitly ask for feedback from people about how things can be better, and explicitly invite disagreement. If you don’t, you won’t get it.
Step #2: Start to talk
Now you’ve dealt with the fear, it’s time to talk. If you’re not having regular one-to-ones with your boss, then ask for them. It’s important to spend at least some time with your boss at least once a week.
By regularly catching up with your boss, you can slowly build relationship and goodwill with them. That way, when a tricky conversation comes around, or you need something to happen in the wider organisation, you’ll have the ability to push back. You may even be able to reserve a bad decision if you need to.
Try and understand their motivations. Don’t complain. Empathise with their position if you can, and restate their arguments to check your understanding.
For more help in checking you understand their train of thought, I’d recommend Douglas Squirrel’s “TDD for people” technique. It’s detailed in this podcast.
Step #3: Ask for feedback
Perhaps you have a boss who is always offering constructive feedback. However, if you have a boss who is more laissez-faire in their approach to you, it’s important to ask for feedback on your performance. Ask them to be honest with you. Let them know you’re happy to receive any kind of constructive comments on how to improve.
I’m always pleased when a team member asks me for feedback, as it shows that they respect my opinion, and it gives me an opportunity to help them. Your boss will likely feel the same.
Step #4: See their side
When talking to your boss, ask searching questions to help you to understand your boss’s point of view. Ask what your boss wants to see happen. If it’s it’s all surface level changes they’d like to see, make sure you take the time to understand why they want those changes.
Mary Abbajay, in her book Managing Up, talks about how people will often resist the idea of managing up (taking charge of one’s workplace experience) through their own ego – our own need to be right. We become obsessed with “my boss should” or “my boss needs to” without considering their needs or perspective. We get trapped in our own views, needs and wants.
Ideally you want their honest answers to questions like these:
- Is there anything you would like me (or my team) to be doing more of?
- What makes you stressed?
- How much freedom do I have to change our processes or practices?
- What needs to stay the same? Why?
Listen carefully to how they see things, and strive to understand their context and their point of view. Use all the one-to-one listening techniques on this post.
Step #5: Be patient
As Abbajay points out, your boss might change their mind, but your boss won’t fundamentally change who they are. You can only manage your reaction and interaction.
The only way that you’ll be able to change your boss’s mind when it matters is through good prep work. This takes time. Don’t rush it. When the moment comes where you need to change your boss’s mind, if you don’t have that relationship, you might as well not bother trying.
Even then, you may not succeed. They’re an individual with their own concerns, and may have context you don’t know anything about. However, by doing the prep work you’ve given yourself the best chance of having influence and a chance to spend that influence when it matters.
If you want to change your boss’s mind, don’t try and do it without building relationship first. That can have the opposite effect to what you intend. Take time now to earn goodwill, so that you can use it when you need to. Then you’ll be able to change your boss’s mind when it matters, unblock your organisation’s delivery bottlenecks and allow your team to flourish.