How to work under an insecure boss?
August 19, 2014 11:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm struggling with a social / political issue at work. I have been in my current job for about a year. I am a little overqualified for the position, but I really like most aspects of it and it's a small enough field that other similar jobs are hard to come by, so I'd vastly prefer it if the solution doesn't involve quitting.

I have significantly more expertise in some facets of the work that we do than my boss does. He also seems to feel that he gets less respect than he deserves within the larger organization. He's truly a nice guy a lot of the time and has genuine professional strengths, but he seems to be so hungry for status that he finds ideas he didn't personally come up with or bring to the organization himself profoundly troubling unless he can somehow take ownership of them. He realizes that my work is, in fact, excellent, and my performance reviews have reflected this. Nevertheless he hates it when I question his methods or even quietly do things in ways he doesn't expect. A typical conversation might go something like:

Boss: [Work product] looks great!
Me: Yeah, I just [did it X way] and got it taken care of quickly.
Boss: Um, err... I really don't like [X way of doing that]. I've always thought it [causes Y insignificant problem / is ineffective for intuitive but untrue reason Z].
Me: (thinking: you just said it looked great) Actually, it works because [actual progression of chosen method].
Boss: I really don't like it. I prefer to [use a method that is totally impractical].

Similar little conflicts play out all the time. He'll insist that things be done in ways that simply don't work, which puts me in the position of having to choose whether to defy him or fail to get important things done. Sometimes I can't conceal my frustration, and if I so much as sigh, or say something like "Well, you're the boss," this only confirms his pre-existing fears that he can't get no respect. Thereafter he'll be snippy and make backhanded comments for days, and I'll feel like actually doing my job is something I have to get away with.

I'm not sure what I'm asking here, but I think I probably have some blind spots that will be obvious to others. Short of quitting or making an enemy of him by going over his head, how might I try to improve this dynamic?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Boss: [Work product] looks great!

And then what you say should be, "Thanks!" That's it. End of conversation. There's no need for explanation on how you did it. Just that it's done and right, which makes you awesome and appreciated.

I do have to say this: Sighing at a coworker, manager, or any other person, really, is a huge sign of disrespect, regardless of the setting. How would you feel if someone sighed at you?
posted by mochapickle at 11:20 PM on August 19, 2014 [33 favorites]

If that's how a typical conversation goes, then I agree with mochapickle that you need to say less. Accept the compliment, but don't feel like you need to explain how you did what you did. Maybe it's coming across like you're bragging? Maybe he's taking your dismissal of certain methods really personally?

It really bothers me when bosses think that their methods are the best, or that because they've always done something a certain way that it's the best way to do it. Sometimes, as long as the end result is what they want, it's better to do it your own way without telling them about it. However, if they want you to do something a certain way and it's absolutely not the best way to do it, you can bring that up in a way that doesn't make you seem like you're questioning their authority so much.

A stupid anecdote: My boss wanted me to rearrange some furniture, including two cabinets. She wanted me to put the shorter, more solid cabinet against a wall and the taller, narrower cabinet near her desk, so that it would create a little nook. I didn't think this was a great idea, because I try to always be aware of hazards and it didn't seem safe to put a tall cabinet in the middle of the room without a wall behind it. I thought it was a stupid idea!! And I could have just said something like, "That's a dumb idea!" to let her know this. But instead I stood quietly for a moment, looked around the room and at all the furniture and said,
"Oh, cool, that's a really good idea to use one of the cabinets as a partition. How about we put the shorter, more solid cabinet next to your desk? It will be a much sturdier partition for you. The other shelf will fit nicely against the wall."
She stood and assessed the situation for a moment and then agreed with me.

That was not the best example because you don't know my workplace/the dynamics, but maybe it will get you thinking about ways that you could present alternative solutions to your boss without him feel like you're questioning him. The aim is for him to realise that the new solution is smarter and more practical and to think, "Wow! What a good idea!" and not to feel like you're treating him like an idiot.

But really, learn to be more patient or how to express your frustration in ways that don't involve sighing at your boss!
posted by kinddieserzeit at 11:55 PM on August 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've not been in this exact situation, but I have had bosses where explaining things opened up areas for nitpicking and there was always some sort of room to throw their authority around. My solution was always to just show him my finished project -- don't involve him in my thought process or progress unless I had questions or needed feedback. And when he says stuff say or asks for stuff, "Fine" and just do it. Don't give him the opportunity to try to micromanage how you do things. Just give him a complete product and let him marvel at how you were able to accomplish it.

It's frustrating and I realize it's an unpleasant work dynamic. You want to be able to feel like you are contributing to what works right and you want to feel like you can have a dialogue. It doesn't sound like he is open to that because he is insecure, which is too bad. However, I will say, as someone who is now a manager, I have realized bosses mostly want to know when something is done or when someone has questions. Updates don't help and start to sound like excuses.

And when you disagree, it may be best to frame it in a way that is not "here is my opposing idea." But like kinddieserzeit above mentions, taking something from his idea and making it seem like you're building on it and suggesting a way to execute his idea.

This is a tough one. But it sounds like you may be in a position to be the boss. It doesn't sound like you're ready to quit, but maybe just keep an eye out for opportunities. Can't hurt.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:16 AM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I kind of cringed at parts of your question, OP, because I recognized a little bit of myself in your description of your boss. Not the huffy/snippy stuff, but definitely the wariness about people who worked under me. Specifically, my occasionally knee-jerk reaction to their making changes to the process without running it by me.

The suggestions that you refrain from giving him the chance to get weird about your streamlined methods are fantastic. If this happens often, then yeah; he's not likely to suddenly appreciate your innovations. I'd save that sort of explanation for his boss.

Some of his reaction (again, specifically to your methods of meeting goals, not the ensuing long-term peevishness) may come from a fear of your capability. But some of it might stem from his familiarity with the status quo system; he wouldn't be the first human to have initially negative reactions to change. His "insignificant" objections may be rooted in fairly significant hassles on his end. Example: I've had minions who helpfully completed tasks in novel ways... That then required hours of paperwork resolution from me, when I could have been working on something else. Maybe they moved things from Pile A to Pile B, but didn't track which things they actually moved. Maybe they didn't actually cause a problem, but their explanation made it sound like they had.

I like to think that I've worked hard to overcome the behavior you're noting (e.g. sitting on my fear reaction, and giving underlings/superiors a chance to prove their ideas), and I'm sure that it's frustrating that he doesn't seem to be. But seriously? No more openly disrespectful body language, or clearly grudging compliance, okay? That's not considered to be professional behavior in most workplaces, and engaging in it doesn't give you much of a leg to stand on when criticizing his level of professionalism.
posted by credible hulk at 1:25 AM on August 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

I endorse mochapickle's advice, say 'thanks' and move on, it's actually good advice for compliments in general.
posted by sunslice at 6:53 AM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

black belt level social skills takes this:

he seems to be so hungry for status that he finds ideas he didn't personally come up with or bring to the organization himself profoundly troubling unless he can somehow take ownership of them.

and communicates in a way to make your ideas seem like his ideas, so that everything is smooth and he's none the wiser.

(This assumes you are not looking to get ahead yourself of course. Unless he is actually decent, in which case after the honeymoon period he will begin to give you credit for your ideas.)

I have a coworker who operates at this black belt level and I simultaneously admire and fear her for the things she has been able to accomplish.

plan B: you could address this with him privately to try to shake off the bad feelings you two are bouncing between each other. "Hey boss, listen I feel like we haven't been getting along lately and I'd like to change that. I'm sorry if I've been tense lately, I just really want to do a good job on this project." Then sit back and listen to what they say and how they view things. I've changed a few dynamics with coworkers using this method since it clears the air and brings it into the open.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:30 AM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've been on both sides of this fence.

On your side, if there are others in your team who do the same type of work and are having the same type of problems, you can request some kind of gathering where these types of issues can get discussed. Call it "Ongoing Training" so the whole team can keep up to date on new technologies and methods. We have "Brown Bag Sessions" where you gather informally over lunch and discuss a topic. One person can lead the session, everyone contributes.

On the other side, there may be reasons that you don't know about. Especially if the boss came up through the ranks and did your job before you did and he knows how to do it. Over the years, my team has fired two developers because they consistently did things their own way while disregarding the instructions they were given. Bu it's not a dictatorship - we are always allowed to question things, and we either get valid reasons for doing it that way or the boss says Hmmm, you're right that might be a better way, let's try it that way this time. It's a give and take. But the key is ALWAYS respectful communication in both directions.

If the boss' way gets the same results as your way, then do it his way. If it doesn't, or if you can articulate the pros and cons of each method, then have those discussions with the boss.
posted by CathyG at 8:39 AM on August 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh man. I've been there.

As to the sighing - yeah, you have to stop that. I know it can be *really* hard. For context, one of the worst interactions I ever had with a boss (and I'm not proud of it) involved me telling him "I think the actual problem here is that you have no idea what you're talking about."

Now, that statement was true; he did have no idea what he was talking about and the problem is he knew it too but didn't want to admit it or have anyone else know it (spoiler alert: everyone knew).

I'm a pretty "go with the flow" sort of guy. I had never even come close to that kind of interaction with a boss or co-worker. Over months and months the frustration of a boss who wouldn't just say: "I don't quite get this, can you explain to me so I can assist in making a decision?" took me to a breaking point.

OK, Suggestions:

- Get out ahead of it:
I disagree with just getting it done your way and not engaging with your boss. Instead, start with pulling in the boss. Write an email or short doc that says: "I'm about to take on task (t). Here are three approaches I considered and the associated pros and cons. I've opted to go with approach (a) but I'd like your thoughts"

The last part is important - if you select 3 things that all make sense and work for you then you've restricted the set of things he can suggest to things that work *and* you give him the opportunity to feel like you want his opinion and he has some ownership of the approach.

At the very least this prevents wasted work.

However, the boss may still end up wanting you to do it his/her way. Which leads to...

- The boss is the boss
Sometimes your boss is an idiot. Sometimes your boss may want you to do things you think are stupid. But guess what: He/She's the boss so you do it or you find a different boss. Which leads to...

- Find a different boss
Without quitting the company can you find a different team? This was ultimately what I had to do in my situation.

Good luck.
posted by lucasks at 12:39 PM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Boss: Um, err... I really don't like [X way of doing that]. I've always thought it [causes Y insignificant problem / is ineffective for intuitive but untrue reason Z].
Me: (thinking: you just said it looked great) Actually, it works because [actual progression of chosen method].
< - - Here is your problem.

I think it's pretty clear to your boss that you think you're smarter and better than he is. Whether he's as insecure and crappy at his job as you imply, or whether he's actually great at his job and has valid ideas that you dismiss because you're convinced yours are better, he's still your boss. So at least entertain the idea that he's not full of crap.

Instead of "ACTUALLY, my way works great and your objections are wrong," you could try:

- I thought it worked well because [___]. How would you suggest doing it?
- I think I understand what you're saying, but would that solution cause [X] problem? How could we fix that?
- I'm worried if we do it that way, [X] problem will happen. Would it be okay if we use your approach, but do [Y] instead of [Z] to avoid that?
- In the past we've done [X], but have had problem [Y]. I'd like to fix that by doing [X] with the following tweak: [___]. What do you think?
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:26 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

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