Supporting the Roller Coaster Boss

I can’t tell you how often I talk to acquaintances that have leaders who are inconsistent in the delivery of their message and their actions. I’m sure you are thinking of a few right now. How did they make you feel? Confused. Underappreciated. Upset. Frustrated. All of the above, plus many more? Probably. You can certainly sit on the sidelines and allow him to treat you and your team poorly, or you can stand up for what is right and create a positive work environment for all involved.

Remember the below as you deal with a boss who is elated one week and a bear to work with the next.

The Boss Knows Things You Don’t – Just as your boss can’t understand the sacrifices you are making to meet work demands, you are probably aware of only a fraction of what he is dealing with. Managing relationships with key stakeholders and multi-million dollar decisions can take their toll on even the most seasoned veteran. Knowing that your decisions impact the lives of hundreds or thousands of people can be a very heavy thing that strikes up emotion when you least need it. So, cut him a little slack and lower your expectations of his behavior. Accept that generational differences may be causing difficulties in communication. Accept that the pressure he is under is probably more than he is comfortable with. And, accept that, in his mind, he is doing the right thing…even if it isn’t what you would choose if the decision were yours.

It’s Not About You – It’s about the position you hold. Every person in a corporation is replaceable. Assuming a sound business plan and ethical decision makers, the entity is going to live on in perpetuity, slowly evolving to meet the needs of the consumer. As an employee at the Four Seasons, I once had a disgruntled guest reach over the counter, put his finger up to my nose, and tell me that he was going to cut my f***ing legs off. He wasn’t mad at me as a person, I didn’t pre-book his room location, but I represented the entity that under delivered on his expectation. Learn to depersonalize your boss’s statements towards you. Attempt to treat most interactions as one between a manager and an employee. Take a deep breath when he says something inflammatory. Go for a quick walk. The change of scenery will help you disconnect from that moment and allow you to refocus on the task at hand.

Praise Good Behavior – In the moments that he is supportive, funny, ethical, or a strong communicator, inundate him with positive comments. If his direction on a project was consistent and easily understandable, tell him. Also tell him how that consistency helped you achieve your goal faster. If he made an unpopular decision, but it was the right thing to do ethically, send him a note. In the note, sympathize with him for having to make the tough call, but tell him how much you appreciate working for a character-driven person. Your goal is to make as many deposits as possible into his “emotional bank account” so that when you have to make a withdrawal (see next section), he still views the relationship positively.

Confront Negative Behavior – This is one of the most difficult things to do as an employee. Your boss holds power over your future and you do not want to upset the delicate balance. But, when your principles are violated, company policy has been breached, or you feel wronged in some way, you must stand up for what is right. When the time is right, and in as diplomatic a way as possible, do the following:

  • Describe the behavior and why it is important to you – focus on the action and how it impacted you, do not bring others’ opinions into the conversation
  • Seek his opinion about why he did what he did – try to determine the “trigger” so that you can recognize it in the future
  • Work together to summarize how to handle the situation moving forward
  • Show appreciation and express confidence about the future of the relationship

Stay Positive – The average American changes careers 11 times in his life. The probability of you having to work with the roller coaster boss for five to ten years is slim. Ensure that you set very specific goals for yourself each year…and meet them. Achievement of these goals, and benchmarking them against your peers, will help you gauge your success and remain upbeat about what is on the horizon. Being a change maker in your company will help to get you noticed both internally and externally. With the coming war for talent, you will be sought after for your accomplishments and what you can do in your next position.

If your boss happens to enjoy the roller coaster ride, find a way to make his inconsistencies known to senior management. They’ll help by sharing him with a competitor.