There’s little that’s more frustrating at work than trying to tell your boss something important and realizing that she’s not listening. You may have a great idea about how to serve your constituents. You may be telling her that her instructions make no sense. Or you may be warning her that her approach will destroy a project. Regardless of the context, when you see her failing to focus on what you say, you’re left feeling dismissed, disrespected and powerless.
All too often, I’ve seen people respond to these frustrations in ways that are perfectly natural, but — unfortunately — self-destructive. These include:
- Repeating themselves endlessly.
- Blowing up in anger.
- Telling everyone who will listen that the boss is an inconsiderate jerk.
- Fomenting a coup.
- Following their own path, disregarding instructions.
- Appealing to the boss’s boss.
- Refusing to do anything.
- Petulantly and mindlessly following directions, abdicating all responsibility.
- Quitting in disgust.
Many of those responses will bring trouble on your head, and none is likely to help you accomplish your original goal of helpfully advising your supervisor and making your team and yourself a success.
So what kind of response would make the most sense? Figuring that out requires that you consider a few key questions.
- Is your boss consistently uninterested in listening to input from anyone? If your boss is never interested in hearing from anyone, she probably feels a need to convince you, herself or both that she’s in charge, competent and capable. With that degree of insecurity, she will see any input as a challenge to her authority or abilities. Too bad for her. But not so bad for you, because there’s an approach that will work. Getting your message through requires that you not arouse her defensiveness. So instead of telling her what you think should be done, ask leading questions that allow her to change direction without feeling challenged. Instead of saying, “I think that we should use vendor A instead of B,” try something like, “What did you think about vendor A?” And throw in other questions as the conversation progresses. “How did you feel about their service levels versus those of vendor B?”
- Is your boss consistently uninterested in listening to input from you but open to others? If your boss listens to people, but not to you, then you have a completely different problem. You need to think carefully about your relationship with your boss and how it got to the point where your input isn’t valued. Do you feel the need to correct every little thing she says? Do you need to be right about everything? Do you talk to her condescendingly? It will take time to earn back whatever trust you lost. Ask your colleagues how it happened. They probably know.
- Is there something about this particular situation that might lead your boss to be less open? If your boss usually takes advice from everyone, but not this time, it probably means that there’s something about this situation, or even something in her personal life, that makes it difficult. Have some sympathy for what’s going on in her world. You may need to wait until she’s ready. Or sometimes you just need to let her know that you understand how hard things are for her and ask her how you can be of help.
If your boss doesn’t listen, don’t give up — and don’t start a fight. Think carefully about how you can get your message through and enhance your relationship in the process.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.