Chris St. Hilaire – How to manage a difficult boss

Chris St. Hilaire, President and CEO, M4 Strategies

Whenever I hear somebody complaining about a boss who is clueless, inept or petty, one of Bob Dylan’s songs pops into my head — “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Unless your name is Gates, Buffett or Zuckerberg, you will need to persuade someone in a position of power to see things your way. That’s why two of the earliest chapters in my book, “27 Powers of Persuasion,” are about managing egos. While it’s nice to be able to manage the egos of colleagues and staff, it is absolutely crucial to manage the ego of your boss. By doing so, you can avoid conflict and increase your chances of getting your plans approved quickly.

Too often, people’s knee-jerk reaction to a supervisor’s criticism is to respond to every attack. That’s the wrong approach. Successful persuasion is not about winning arguments, it’s about aligning all the players and unifying them around a common goal. Responding to attacks does not achieve that, it just makes you seem defensive, close-minded or too sensitive.

Consensus is what you’re aiming for, and to that end a little proactive unity building never hurts. When the group first convenes, ask, “Why are we here today?” As the group decides on the meeting’s main topic, it will be reminded that there is a big picture to consider. If arguments erupt later on, you can return to the common ground of that originally stated goal.

As the discussion continues, there are several effective strategies for dealing with a boss’s negative input without threatening his ego. The first is easy: After the boss’s comment, simply nod, say nothing and wait. Ninety percent of the time, he will moderate his own position when he becomes uncomfortable with the silence. (It works with everyone, not just bosses.)

If the boss demands a response, say, “I see your point.” Pause for a beat and really consider it. Then offer another suggestion that, if possible, incorporates some of his idea or deals with part of his objection.

A few more suggestions for managing the objections of your boss:

Find one thing to like about the other person. A print journalist once told me that she used to work for an extremely difficult editor. But despite his poor news judgment and consistently condescending tone, they did share a love of the same central California pinot. If the journalist began all their conversations with a discussion of the editor’s latest wine-shopping adventure, the rest of the meeting would be relatively civil.

Make it about choice, fairness and accountability. These are three of the most popular words in the English language. Redirect any debate using one of these concepts, and if you argue correctly, you’ll never lose.

Be your own pundit. People often move from assignment to assignment without ever stopping to review their performance. By consciously taking a step back and reviewing what worked and what didn’t, you gain a fresh perspective of what you should do again and what you can do better next time. This is especially important when calibrating your next encounter with a superior.

These tactics aren’t about manipulating your boss or strong-arming your way to winning every debate. They are strategies aimed at figuring out what matters to people and how to use that information to influence them and achieve mutual goals — and learning how to evaluate your own ego and admit that sometimes, your boss is right.

Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of “27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences & Win Allies,” published in 2010 by the Penguin Group. He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians. Reach him at [email protected]