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Boss Containment aka Managing a Temperamental Boss

Boss Containment

It was worrying, but not surprising that in the recent book by acclaimed journalist Bob Woodward, ‘Fear – Trump in the White House’ that staff conceal difficult news from their boss. Briefing papers are withheld, edicts ignored and difficult messages are avoided. Whilst Trump may be the poster boy for a temperamental boss, his staff are merely demonstrating a behaviour that is seen in many organisations – boss containment.

In my talks and workshops, I emphasise modern leadership competencies; skills such as empathy, empowering and achieving through others. It is easy to forget that for many managers these are alien concepts. Like most things, effective leadership can be plotted on a bell curve. Some leaders are at the cutting edge, others, through a cocktail of ignorance, negligence, fear, ego and myopia require ‘handling.’

Common sense and social skills mean we will put ourselves in other people’s shoes, demonstrate empathy and tailor our communication for maximum impact. But when does healthy interpersonal skills turn into boss containment?

We will find ourselves drifting into boss containment when we notice our manager display some of the following behaviours.

  1. His door is usually shut and he speaks to me only when he wants something (though he’ll say he is approachable!)
  2. She always seems stressed and pressurised and that stress is contagious.
  3. His default influencing strategy is shouting orders.
  4. He knows little about me and my interests. Sometimes he struggles to remember my name.
  5. She doesn’t have our backs and doesn’t shield us from the politics in the company. In fact, she’s been known to play us off against each other.
  6. He has an insatiable appetite for reassurance.
  7. Her only behaviour that is consistent is her inconsistency.
  8. He leaves me feeling drained and de-energised even after a short conversation.
  9. She takes the credit when the team perform well.
  10. He is quick to blame us when something doesn’t go well.
  11. He clings to plans and opinions despite overwhelming evidence that he is dead wrong.
  12. She’s a terrible listener.
  13. He lacks the self-awareness of his lack of communication skills and what’s worse; he lacks the self-awareness of his lack of self-awareness!
  14. Somehow, she manages to make every conversation about her.
  15. She communicates via email when a conversation would be far more effective not to mention courteous.
  16. He sends out ‘motivational’ emails in a David Brent style every few weeks that just have the opposite effect.
  17. He abdicates not delegates.
  18. He is not to be seen when bad news is communicated and when we want certainty as to what is happening.
  19. She devotes little effort to understanding what it feels like to work for her. Her modus operandi is ‘you’re lucky to have a job’ which makes us feel quite disposable.
  20. Would read an article like this and feel none of it applies to him (refer to point 13!)

At the heart of boss containment is controlling what get your manager’s attention and influencing their response to what appears on their radar. Now we will all spend time predicting our manager’s response to a situation so we can pre-plan a course of action. But too much of anything is not so good.

Boss containment is controlling what get your manager’s attention and influencing their response to what appears on their radar. Click To Tweet

In organisations where excessive effort goes into ‘managing the manger’ there are inherent dangers. Information doesn’t flow freely, increasing the likelihood of something important being missed. Because it is all about ‘not upsetting the boss,’ the focus is maintenance of the status quo and damage limitation. There is little scope for creativity and new ideas. Staff will only want to impart positive outcomes, (like a child to a strict parent) resulting in a dash to own the good news, but back-stabbing and scapegoating when something doesn’t go well.

Boss Containment

Scarily, instructions from the manager can be ignored (just as we read in the Bob Woodward book) which creates an unofficial chain of command and massive uncertainty. People won’t push back, rock the boat or voice harsh truths for fear of being slaughtered. We will see the watermelon approach to issues (green on the outside, red in the centre) meaning on the surface everything will seem ok, but behind the spin, or when you dig a little deeper, there are serious challenges.

At senior levels, particularly with ego-driven managers, their focus is usually on communication with external stakeholders not internal employees. This creates the gap where vital information can be concealed from them. Of course, it is not just the volatile managers who stimulate boss containment, it’s also those managers that staff consider inept (often someone who exemplifies the Peter Principle, that is, promoted to the point of incompetence.)

In companies where boss containment is rife, the culture is one of fear. Staff morale will be low and staff turnover high, which has a serious impact on productivity. Just think of the wasted energy that goes into boss containment that could be harnessed in more effective ways.

It is said that people join companies but they leave managers. In toxic working environments, staff who feel they have employability options will resign and leave. What’s more challenging is when employees resign and stay. We’ve heard of the phrase the blind leading the blind. When boss containment is practiced, it is more accurate to say that the blind is leading those that can see.

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