With Martin G. Moore

Episode #140

Horrible Bosses and Managing Up: Q&A with Marty and Em

In this week’s Q&A, Em and I cover two listener questions about the subtle art of managing upwards and how to deal with a passive aggressive boss.

We do get an awful lot of questions about how to deal with those leaders above you, so much so that we’re actually planning out a mini-course about it!

In the meantime, the two questions we’ve chosen for this episode cover the main issues that we see. The first question from Genevieve is about how to influence upwards when you feel as though you don’t have any basis for doing so, and the second from Chris is about working under a passive aggressive boss.

We cover a lot of ground in this one, dialling it right down to the practical questions you can ask your boss today to better influence up the line. If you’ve got a horrible boss, this episode is going to give you the perspective and practical tips you need to move forward with confidence!

A few other useful podcast episodes that we mention during this episode are:

Episode #132 What Do CEOs Do?
Episode #134 Being More Strategic
Episode #138 It’s Not WHAT You Know
Episode #110 Getting In The Arena

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Episode #140 Horrible Bosses and Managing Up: Q&A with Marty and Em

Marty: Hey there, and welcome to episode 140 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode; influencing those above you, another Q&A with Em. Now in this week’s Q&A, we’re going to pick up two questions about the subtle art of managing upwards. We do get an awful lot of questions about how to deal with those leaders above you, so much so that we’re actually planning out a mini course about it. In the meantime, the two questions we’ve chosen for this episode cover the two main issues that we see.

The first is how to influence upwards when you feel as though you don’t have any basis for doing so. And the second is about working under a passive aggressive boss. So I reckon we’ll go into the bad boss syndrome quite a bit more deeply here. I’ve had a few in my time, but having spoken to many of my friends, family and colleagues, and of course fielding questions from our Leadership Beyond the Theory students, I think I’ve actually been relatively lucky, to tell you the truth. Anyhow, to help me navigate the landscape and moderate the discussion, my business partner, and the CEO of Your CEO Mentor, Emma Green.

She’s put the producer’s headphones down so that she can ask the questions today. Welcome back to this side of the mic Em.

Em: Hey, Marty. It is great to be back. I just did an Instagram story this morning, actually about the fact that my mind is blown, that it’s May already. How crazy is that?

Marty: Totally. Time’s absolutely flying, and with my move to the U S happening in a few months, the hard deadlines are starting to approach. Super exciting for the business though. So Em the last time we released a Q&A episode was the day before our live virtual event in February, where we celebrated the milestone of our millionth podcast download. A lot’s happened since then of course, not least of which, is another 350,000 podcast downloads. Anyhow, the event seemed like forever ago.

Em: I know, and now we are into full book planning mode. So I should probably do a shout out here. Your brand new keynote, that accompanies the book, is ready to be rolled out in the coming months. So, if you are based in Australia, you love the podcast, and you want Marty to speak at your work event or conference in person, now is the time to get in touch with me before he jets off to the U S in early July. Shoot me an email at Emma@yourceomentor.com if you want to chat more about it. We’ve got some super cool accompanying book bonuses to go along with all of our May and June events as well.

Marty: Yeah, there’s not much time left is there Em? So let’s jump into the episode. I really love these topics. Let’s get into it.

Em: Cool. So the first question is from Genevieve. She sent this to us via Instagram. “I listened to your podcast and I love it. I would love to implement the things that you talk about, but I am a small cog in a huge machine. How can I influence those above me to try new ways of working?” Such a good question.

Marty: Yeah, it is a great question and it gives me so many opportunities to cover off on a bunch of really important principles. So first of all, is the principle of doing what’s in your control, first and foremost. You’ve got to get your own team functioning. You’ve got to post superior results, and that’s what’s going to give you the credibility to enable you to challenge upwards. It’s certainly going to get you some attention organizationally, and it should get you the ear of your boss. Now you probably won’t get invited to sit in the more senior forums that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t still influence higher order issues. For example, if you have credibility and track record, you can buy into the bigger debate. You can talk about the issues with implementation that your bosses may not see from their heights when they devise a strategy. You can talk about ways to turbocharge their decisions with more effective execution. They’ll begin to see the value in this over time. So one of the big rules of thumb here is always be respectful and know your place. Sometimes if you don’t do it the right way, it can come across as “Listen you idiots while I tell you how this is likely to play out.” Now, I was really guilty of this in my younger years. I wouldn’t have been fun for people who were leading me because I was pretty direct about what I thought they should be doing. But, I learned over the years to couch it in a way that’s much more conciliatory, much less aggressive, in a way that’s questioning rather than making definitive statements. So I’d say things like, “Look, I could be wrong, but is it possible that we could get more value by doing X?” Or I’d start something by saying, “Hey, can I ask a dumb question? Why wouldn’t we just do X?”

Em: Marty, that sounds suspiciously like you were trying to be a trusted advisor. Am I on the right track there?

Marty: You’re spot on. Absolutely Em. Becoming a trusted advisor is the way you influence those above you. No one’s really interested in hearing the opinions of someone they don’t trust, respect, and value. But if you put yourself in that position, and you’re going to get a lot of latitude and a lot of opportunity to influence, make no mistake though, there is no substitute for getting into a position where your influence is much greater by definition. Becoming a CEO gives you the opportunity to do many things. And although influencing is of course the optimum way to get results, it’s much easier to influence whole of organisation outcomes from the corner office, than it is from a middle manager position.

Em: That sounds like so far away though, Marty. How do you get to be a CEO? There’s got to be a lot of influencing involved there.

Marty: Yeah. Yeah. There is Em, you know, and I guess for everyone it’s different, but for me it was all about consistent delivery of value, which is why we have this as the centrepiece of Leadership Beyond the Theory. Deliver value is the core to everything. But I also had demonstrated core skills, critical business skills, like strategy, finance, marketing, technology savvy, investment analysis, heaps of things that I had that were good, generic skills. There was also a good measure of relationship building, and in particular, using my leadership skills that I developed over time to get the most out of my people. Because as we know, leadership drives culture, culture drives performance.

Em: Yeah. And there are a bunch of episodes on this that would be very helpful if that’s the direction you want to go in. I’ll put them in the show notes, but episode 132, ‘what do CEO’s do’. Episode 134, ‘being more strategic’ and episode 138, ‘it’s not what you know’. Those are all really great ones to listen to and it winds in perfectly with this topic.

Marty: Yeah. They’re all great topics and they’re all pretty recent too. I was just looking at those all in the last couple of months or so and I wonder why I’ve just chosen now to go ahead with this, how to be a CEO, like theme to my podcast, but that’s good. And also there’s one also that I really liked from last year that I wouldn’t overlook because it’s critical to how you think about performance and success and that’s episode 110, I think. Em just check that before you drop it in the show notes, called ‘getting in the arena’, at least have a crack guys.

Em: Oh, and I think that was one of our favourite episodes from last year in our wrap-up wasn’t it?

Marty: It may well have been actually we had a lot of feedback on that one.

Em: Let’s crack on to the next question from Chris. Chris sent this to me via Facebook. He looks at the same issue, but from another angle. “Marty, how do you deal with an individual that is aggressive or passive aggressive, but they’re in a leadership role above you?”

Marty: Yeah, loads here. Good question, Chris. We’re basically talking about difficult bosses, so maybe I’ll just broaden this out a bit while we’re on the subject. The first thing I probably should say is if you’ve got a bad boss, give them a break. Now you might be surprised to hear me say this, but, most bosses are good people, but they let their fears and insecurities push them to behave a certain way. And we all have fears and securities let’s face it. Also once you get up to the next level, you generally tend to realise that it’s a lot harder than it looked from when you were observing from down below. So at that next level, they are pressures that you don’t understand. You also get more scope and visibility of what’s going on. And if you lack confidence and competence and the will to be a strong leader, you’re going to struggle.

Most leaders that get up to senior levels do have bouts of imposter syndrome from time to time, and some of it, suffer massively from it. What if I’m found out for being the fraud that I am? So, fortunately I didn’t suffer from that too much. But when I became CEO at CS Energy, I learned to forgive a lot of the things that I’d seen in previous CEOs, that in the past, I was actually quite critical of. And even though I still wouldn’t have necessarily done things the way they did, I certainly had a much better appreciation of why they chose to behave a certain way. So I’d say, just give them the benefit of the doubt whenever you can. They’re just people trying to do the best with what they got.

Em: So true. And I think while we’re on this point, I love that saying that you say to me often, if I very quickly arc up about something, you say “You never know what someone’s intent is. If you get the choice of ascribing, either incompetence or malice to their actions, start with incompetence and work backwards from there”. And that’s been a really great way for me to cool my head and put myself in the other person’s shoes. I know we did a podcast episode a couple of weeks ago about empathy, and that helps me get into a more empathetic space and more curious, why are they doing that? What’s their world view around what’s happening?

Marty: Yeah, that’s right. We never know what anyone intends. All we see is the action that comes out on the outside, don’t we?

Em: Totally. So I guess what I would want to know is “What do you do when you encounter a good person who just happens to be a bad boss?”

Marty: Yeah, and look, we know that bad bosses come in all different shapes and sizes, right? And the really bad ones make the mediocre ones look good. Now mediocre bosses are normally just weak and they can be influenced, but we tend not to push too hard because we’re sort of saying, “Okay, we don’t need to rock the boat here. It’s not that bad”. These people usually just lack the personal fortitude and will required to lead. So they always follow the path of least resistance or sometimes I guess, the path of greatest self-interest, which is probably more common. So it’s entirely possible to influence their decision-making by showing them better options or giving them a better way of doing things. You normally just need to provide a little injection of backbone, which if you have yourself, is surprisingly transferrable to people above you. So where are we?

Look, what we said before about being a trusted advisor and the techniques for influencing upwards respectfully hold up pretty well here. Just be careful though. If you start to be seen as a threat by your boss, to his quiet, conflict-free existence, he can actually go in the opposite direction. So the rule of thumb is always make your boss look good. That holds up pretty well here, as does the no surprises principle. Just remember, although a boss might try to put you off giving them bad news by being a shoot the messenger style of boss, you still need to adopt the principle of bad news by rocket, good news by rickshaw.

Em: When you say always make your boss look good, that kind of triggered me. What if I don’t like my boss? Like, I don’t want to make them look good. That kind of goes against, I don’t know, my grain.

Marty: Yeah, but I guess it’s a little bit counterproductive, isn’t it? Because what do you want to do? You want to be a high performing individual, a high performing leader, and you want to be the best leader you can be for your people. And so if you do that thing, that is in your own self-interest then obviously, it’s going to suit your boss as well. And you’ll always make your boss look good if you’re delivering. I just like to say it in those terms, because if you’re making your boss look good by doing your job super, super well, then even if they don’t agree with you or they don’t necessarily you or you don’t see eye to eye on certain points, they will tolerate that. And they’ll love it. And they’ll keep you around and they’ll give you what you need to keep making them look good. That’s just the way it works.

Em: But what if you’re making them look good, but they’re still treating you poorly?

Marty: Well, yeah, we’re going to get to that because when we get down a little bit further, I do want to talk about the aggressive boss or the passive aggressive boss. And particularly the passive aggressive boss, like that’s ugly, right? Because there’s nothing you can really put your finger on. They undermine you, but you can’t really call it out because it’s not overt. And that’s some of the hardest ones. We’ll get down to that in a minute. I want to finish with that one.

Em: Okay. So what are some other types of bosses then, that we can cover off on from here?

Marty: If we look at resilience and able to function under pressure. I think there’s lots of bosses who look really good until they’re under pressure, and then they fold. And we’ve all seen that, anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, we know that, and these leaders just lack resilience. So they can’t get into senior levels in an organisation unless they learn to put the game face on for the bosses above them. But of course, if you’re working underneath them, you’re much closer to the action. And you can observe them from a better vantage point when they’re not necessarily on their best behaviour. Now in the book, I actually pull this apart and give these names, right? So, I call them three common types of bosses who can’t handle the pressure, the landmine boss, the catatonic boss, and the teflon boss.

So the landmine boss is fantastic, as long as everything’s going well. And then something happens and they just explode without warning. And if you’re anywhere near the vicinity of them, you’re going to get damaged. So I think that landmine analogy is pretty usefully there.

Then there’s the catatonic boss and I’ve worked with lots of these in my time. This is the boss who, when things get bad, they avoid. They hide. They procrastinate. They won’t make decisions. They become unavailable. And they basically are in foetal position in a corner somewhere, metaphorically speaking, sucking their thumbs. And we do see that quite a bit.

And the other one is a teflon boss, who in times of pressure, just blames everyone else. It wasn’t me. I was waiting on that from her. He didn’t do his part. I couldn’t have foreseen this issue, which wasn’t my problem. It’s always someone else’s fault. And when you see a teflon boss, just know, that at some point in time, the teflon boss will blame you. Because that’s their style, and they have no compunction in blaming others for the things that they’re not achieving. So those types of bosses under pressure, are really hard to manage.

Now, then you’ve got, let’s call this broad category micromanagers. And Em, I know this is really dear to your heart. You’ve had quite a few of these in your career before you joined me in the business and we set this up. Yep. Micromanagers can’t let go of control because of their own need to be satisfied that you’re doing your job. And the only way they can do that is by being in the nth degree of detail. They want to ask you questions at a completely inappropriate and excruciating level of detail and it’s super, super frustrating.

But even though it’s a pain in the ass, it’s not really destructive. What gets really bad is when they start to try and make your decisions for you. So this is where we have these conflicting concepts of accountability and empowerment, which can very easily be eroded by a micromanaging boss. If you give someone accountability for delivering an outcome, you also have to empower them. And that comes in a range of different ways, and I think we’ve got a podcast episode out there, specifically on this. But when you’re talking about accountability, they’ve got to be allowed to be masters of their own destiny. They’ve got to be able to make their own decisions. The minute you step in and make a decision on their behalf or greatly influence a decision, you’re sharing their accountability. And this completely erodes the accountability model, and you go back to the all care/no responsibility thing, which is terrible, terrible, damaging for execution in an organisation.

So micromanagers really kill the culture. They de-motivate their people, who just think, well why the hell am I here if you’re going to do my work for me? And they create a culture where no one really strives for excellence, because everyone knows the boss is going to change it any way. Then the impact on themselves is terrible too, because they create an oppressive workload. Because they’re trying to do everyone else’s job for them as well as their own. Just remember, you don’t buy a dog and then bark yourself. So they become overworked and depressed and burned out. And when they get like this they’re even worse. They get even more irrational, as decision makers, and more insecure that they feel as though they’re losing control.

Em: Yup. I have definitely seen that before. But Chris’s question asked specifically about a boss who is aggressive or passive aggressive, as you said before, so any tips for him specifically on that?

Marty: Well of course, you know, I always get to the point eventually, even if I do take a few detours along the way, Em, you know me? I’ve got to deal with them separately because aggressive and passive aggressive are two quite different things. With an aggressive boss, the poor behaviour is visible and there are lots of options for how you might deal with that. But with the passive aggressive boss, it’s really hard to put your finger on it, and even harder, to challenge the poor behaviour.

Em: So what options do we have?

Marty: Well with a really aggressive boss, you need to muster up some courage to take it on head on basically. It’s generally males who behave like this, but I have seen it in females as well, just on the odd occasion. But first is make sure you have a level of relationship with that boss. Even very aggressive bosses, aren’t aggressive all the time. So in the times where they’re relatively stable and approachable, you’ve got to try to build a good working relationship with them. That once again is going to give you the licence to have the conversations you need to have. So you can start by making observations on the impact that their behaviour is having on those around them. Now, quite often, they don’t even realise this. They’re completely oblivious to it. And not only do they not realise that their behaviour is aggressive, but they have even less chance of being aware of the impact it’s having on others.

So this is the lack of self-awareness that we see in lots of people and in lots of leaders at relatively senior levels. So how do you do it? One-on-one feedback, best vehicle. You’ve got to approach them in private. You don’t want to make them look bad in front of other people. But you need to be, I guess, relatively strong to do this. Number one rule, always ask for permission. Like this, “Hey Peter, would you be open to me giving you some feedback on a particular issue?” Now without this, you change the risk of this exercise completely. If you ask for permission before you give the feedback, it’s like your walking a tight rope, which is suspended about three feet off the ground. If you don’t ask for permission, you just start sounding off, it’s more like walking a tightrope between two skyscrapers, hundreds of feet in the air. A misstep takes on a totally different meaning.

Em: Totally. And I have got unsolicited feedback before and it’s really thrown me off. Whereas if I know the feedback is coming, I’m ready, I’m prepped, I’m open to the feedback and I’m ready for it, but that unsolicited feedback just straight in your face, that can be really disarming.

Marty: Totally, totally. And you lose the impact of being able to have that conversation because they’re not tuned in to listen. If you just start giving feedback, your boss is likely sitting there going, who do you think you are? And that’s the way they think sometimes. I mean if you blindside them.

Em: Yeah. I think it brings up that defence mechanism.

Marty: Totally. Yeah they go straight into fight or flight. So if you do get through that to give them feedback, then you know, something that’s quite, non-confrontational is the way to do it. So something like this, “Hey, Peter, I know this wasn’t your intention, but I just wanted to tell you the impact you had in that meeting”. So always keep it factual, always keep it respectful, always make sure that you concede and recognise that it’s only your observation and it’s not the objective truth as such. And it’s always good to finish by saying something to the effect of, “I know you wouldn’t have meant it this way, so I thought I should just let you know how it came across to me”.

Em: So it sounds like it could be a bit scary with a boss who is an out and out bully, what do you do then?

Marty: Yeah. Well, it gets more serious there. If you’ve got someone who’s definitely a bully, if you have a commitment to really see it through, most organisations have processes to deal with bullying, which is of course unacceptable behaviour. So you’ve got to commit to going through that process. Now it’s tougher in smaller organisations because often the person who is bullying, aggressive, or overly controlling, is actually at the top. So it’s super tricky.

Em: Yeah. So I guess that could be considered a vote with your feet scenario?

Marty: Well, absolutely. Yeah. That’s where you’ve got to make a choice, right? And like anything else, the boss you work for, will put constraints in place for your job. So they’ll either treat you with respect and let you have freedom of movement and support you to deliver what you have to deliver. And that’s awesome. But if they interfere in some way, if they’re micromanagers or if they’re bullies or anything else, that’s going to constrain your ability to get your job done. And so as with all constraints, the question you have to answer is, am I happy to live with this constraint and operate within it? In which case you do the best with what you’ve got inside that set of constraints, or am I not prepared to live with it? In which case you vote with your feet. But that’s situational. Everyone’s going to be different as to how they approach that. Everyone has different tolerances for this sort of stuff. A bullying or aggressive boss, I walk out on immediately, but that’s just me.

Em: Yeah, I agree. And then how about the less obvious passive aggressive boss? Because I’ve had to deal with a few of these in my time and it’s harder to pin them down, doing the wrong thing.

Marty: I remember actually giving you some guidance and advice on one in particular. I won’t mention his or her name. If you’re listening, you know who you are. But anyway, the passive aggressive is so much harder to deal with. And generally they do subversive things to undermine you. Now, this is usually because they see you as a threat. And we go back to the Jeffrey J. Fox principle of ‘sevens hire fives’. When you think about it, people who are high-performers themselves, they want to try and find people that they can hire who are better than themselves, and then lift them up. So nines and tens are always looking to hire tens, but sevens are sort of less confident. So they’ll hire a five because they’re cheaper. They’re plentiful. They don’t argue. They’re not a threat to their own position.

And they just love it that way, right. But every time you go down the line, the seven’s hire fives, fives, hire threes, threes, hire ones, there goes the gene pool, right. You’re gone. So it’s really important that you keep up the quality. But generally when you’ve got a passive aggressive boss, it’s for that reason. They feel threatened and they get defensive. So, once again, keep making them look good. They’re not going to want you to leave, but they will try and keep you in your place in some way, shape or form. You can’t even take it head on because they’ll just go doggo, and they’ll just say that you must be imagining things. No, it’s nothing like that at all. I’d never undermine you, Marty. You’re awesome. You’re the best.

Em: Especially over email. I reckon over emails, is the worst one, because you just don’t know the tone that someone’s saying something in.

Marty: Email is such a shit form of communication in terms of not being able to see tone, body language, style, all that other stuff, and you’ve got it. It has its place, but you really have to communicate directly with that. Now, if you’ve got someone who is being passive aggressive, it’s a huge constraint. Because it’s harder to see and it’s less likely you could actually ever solve it or change the person who’s being passive aggressive. So keep asking questions about the quality of your work. “Is this what you’re after? Is this meeting your expectations? Am I performing to the standard you’re trying to set for the team?” Keep challenging all the time, just to make sure that you’re on track because they won’t volunteer that necessarily. And eventually if you’re doing this, any misalignment will become obvious in the long run. So maybe you’ll have a poor performance review that just comes out of the blue, or maybe an out of character explosion over something small that you’ll be able to address. But either way, once again, you have a constraint and your decision is can I live with this or can’t I live with this?

Em: Some big questions to ponder. That is awesome, Marty. We covered a lot in this episode. It’s actually a lot longer than I thought it would be. But there’s so much to dig into here, I can’t wait for us to make the mini course on managing up.

Marty: I know, don’t get me talking about bad bosses. I can go on for a long time, which is why we’re here, right?

Em: Is there anything else that you want to add?

Marty: No, look, I reckon I’m all good. Thanks. And I hope the listeners are too, because I’m just a few suggestions for navigating the vagaries of those above us.

Em: Awesome. All right Marty, do you want to close out?

Marty: Yeah. Thanks Em. So that brings us to the end of episode, 140. Thanks so much for joining us. And remember, at Your CEO Mentor our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please share this episode with your network of leaders now, before you go and do anything else.

Em: And I think this is going to be the perfect episode for people to share because everyone has had a boss like this at some point in time. So you are really going to resonate with someone who maybe you’ve worked with in the past, or maybe you are currently navigating a passive aggressive boss. If you haven’t subscribed to or rated the podcast, please take a minute to do that now. It means the absolute world to us. And Marty, thanks for having me on again. It has been a great chat once again.

Marty: No worries Em and look just to make it completely clear, everyone who’s listening, Emma’s my boss and she’s a good boss, right? So I’m happy to keep working for her. Thanks Em. Look, I’m looking forward to next week’s episode, getting comfortable with risk. Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullsh!t leader.



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