According to researchers at Northwestern University there may be no such things as a sensitive boss. It seems insensitivity is to power as empathy is to powerlessness.
Frankly, the powerful just don’t ‘give a damn’.
The powerful are busy taking risks, pushing others to excellence, and having the buck stop at their desk.
These findings have serious implications for anyone trying to influence someone in power since suggestions for influencing others include gentle and sensitive negotiation, reasoning, counter suggestions, and trying to ‘massage’ the relationship. But these are strategies that run counter to the natural style of the boss so they have limited impact.
And, if the powerful are difficult to influence, then what if we’re dealing with the blatant and extreme abuse of power that happens with workplace bullying
where power and insensitivity are completely enmeshed?
It seems more effective to be assertive, clear, and powerful with your boss. Better too instill respect than love in these matters.
Here are some steps that foster respect:
Are you clear, specific, precise, strong, and calm? Or, are you whiny, weak, fearful, and imprecise? Ask for substantive feedback from your friends and family to learn how you come across. Sometimes abrasive and bullying bosses are just frustrated with a lack of clarity. This doesn’t excuse their behavior but if there’s something you can do about this, here’s where you start.
Establish clarity without sucking up: ‘Exactly what is it that you’re looking for in this assignment?’ ‘Let’s be clear about expectations and actions so that we have no misunderstandings.’ ‘How do you see the end product?’ ‘What do we need to complete this project that is missing?’ ‘What are you willing to commit to?’ ‘How will your activities help us reach our goals?’
Clear the emotional field (sorry, coaching lingo):
Call the behavior what it is. ‘You seem really upset today, what’s going on?’ ‘What is it you want from me/us?’ ‘Here’s what I understand you’re looking for, is that right?’
Make coach-like inquiries:
Ask questions that go ‘under’ the issues: ‘Is this your perspective on this issue?’ ‘Are there other perspectives that might be brought into this discussion?’ ‘What else might be possible for this project?’ What are the implications of these other strategies?’
Avoid arguing about emotions: If you’re the boss of a bully, or an HR officer, you have a great opportunity to use a ‘360’ confidential evaluation tool to gather information about your bully and use that info to gently but firmly confront the bully with the facts. Facts matter to bosses, even bully bosses. Facts work better than negotiations, gentle suggestions, or even threats.
In my role as an executive coach I work with many powerful people and it seems quite right that they lack empathy. It’s what helps define their leadership. Some have developed the capacity to be empathetic, build strong teams and are rarely accused of bullying. They know that they have to take risks and not care too much about what others think or feel.
However, others haven’t found the balance between leadership and empathy. And, in stressful times when changes are happening at lightening speed, the skills that made the boss the boss can show up as abrasive or even bullying behavior.