What To Do When Your Boss Undermines You

In that meeting, someone asked a question about the business opportunity for the topic you were all discussing. You gave the answer that you and your boss had already discussed, “it’s in this range”. Your boss unexpectedly chimed in with a different number.

You felt unsupported – betrayed even. Turning your head away for a second, your eyes connected with another executive in the room, and you sensed she had seen it too. That explained her look of sadness, a pity that you were being treated in this way.

You shared this story with me so we could decode it, together. And to see what lessons it offers for how to create the kind of cultures of innovation we all want (and need).

Feedback signals

The first thing we talked about is that none of us expect to be right all the time, but how we get feedback matters a great deal. Of course, feedback helps us to learn to do better, but public feedback also shapes what we’re known for and what people can count on us for.

In other words, feedback shapes our credibility, if one can be trusted and believed in and for what topics. In this case, how can we trust future information if she didn’t know how this decision affected the bottom line? Even more, criticism shows everyone how much and for what abilities we are respected.

Underlying all feedback lies a power dynamic. After all, “I’d like to build on her idea,” is different than “I see it differently,” and still different if delivered with an eye roll or a disparaging tone, implying “we shouldn’t even consider it” if that person said it. And some people—like the top boss—get nearly all feedback in private while the rest of us mere mortals get feedback in public settings, like meetings.

How we’re critiqued tells everyone else in the room how much respect we’re due, how much status we have. And this shapes what else we’re able to accomplish.  

Solution

What should you do now, you ask?

Let’s first cover what not to do. You might go to him and say,“Hey, can we talk about that?”, and explain your experience of the meeting, maybe even adding additional insights you gathered from the executive and what she observed. You might ask, “Isn’t this the range we talked about?”, and he might share “Yes, and then I went to another meeting where I got new information, so range narrowed/changed to this new number; I’m sorry for not updating you.” And he might think he’s done his bit, and you’re both good.

The solution isn’t about clarity on whether he regards you and shows you respect in private. The issue is that many people are left with the impression that he doesn’t respect your data and quantitative sizing skills. Those people walked away questioning future data offered by you. That is the problem that has to get fixed. We don’t need a personal remedy, we need to fix your social reputation that he’s now created in people’s minds.  

So, what to do? Start with the same script above, asking him for his take, share yours (and the research you’ve done with that other executive colleague). If you still think he undermined you when he shouldn’t have, ask him to fix it.

How?

The remedy is for him to restore the credibility he took away. You’ve said he believes you’re a strong business leader, yes? Well, then, he needs to signal that clearly. And, he needs to do it about 5x* in a row to those operational leaders just to undo the damage he has done. Five times just to get to even. If he wants to actually show how much he respects you, and therefore support your credibility, he needs to build up that bank account on your behalf. He needs to say things like, “She provided this latest data, and I trust her to know that it’s dead-on”.

He needs to show his commitment to your success by putting his power behind his belief about you. He didn’t support you that one time, and in fact, made it so that appears you were wrong in front of the very people you’re working to influence.

Why it works

Team performance and new outcomes happen when we know who to count on and for what. This is the foundation of trust. When teams trust one another, they utilize each other’s best strengths. And, when people are trusted, they end up doing their own work with more vigor, determination, and creativity, creating a better outcome. In the same vein, team members who don’t trust the rest of the team try to do too much themselves, or second guess and slow down… and underperform.

That’s why performance feedback – formal or informal – matters. The team is always learning clues for who is good at what, who can deliver on what and therefore who to turn to when the time comes.

*Two pieces of research you need to know. And it relates to the advice that your boss has to do at least five supportive comments to undo the damage he just did. First, Heaply and Losada’s research shows that high-performing teams made on average 5.6 more positive comments for every negative one. Medium-performing teams made 1.9 more, nearly twice as many, positive comments than negative ones, and low-performing teams actually had three negative comments for every positive one. Interestingly, Heaply & Losada’s research matches another piece of research done on personal relationships. John Gottman studied couples and found that the single largest determinant of staying together or breaking up is the ratio of positive to negative comments. To stay together, the optimal ratio is five positive comments for every negative one.  

DO/ACT/NEXT

There’s an easy way he could have done it differently. A way to help him and his team be high performers. And so, if you are this boss, maybe just consider this as you do your own work. Because you, too, can give better feedback. When someone around you says something that is mostly right, figure out how to build on their ideas in such a way as to honor what that person is strong at. “So strategic a point you just made; one operational piece I would add that’s related to a recent change in how we do xyz is….” Think of it as a +1, helping people see what they got right, showing the team what they do well, and then an incremental bit of value add you can contribute to making the whole team rise.

2 Responses:

  1. Jose L. Rodriguez. May 24, 2019 at 8:23 am  

    I prefer to call the discrepancy right there, in the meeting. Something like “I am sorry but I am confused. You and I went over these figures not long ago and came to the same conclusion that THIS is the range. Can you tell us where this new range comes from so that I can update my numbers?” The tone does not have to be confrontational, but rather inquisitive. It shows that you have the capacity to stand up for your reasoning and speak up right when it is more effective. It is one of those crucial moments of truth when your quality and worth have an opportunity to shine in front of everybody present at the meeting. To me that approach is worth 5x more than waiting for the boss to do it right in subsequent meetings and making deposits in the trust account. I am afraid that the solution suggested in this article takes much more time and effort.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. May 24, 2019 at 1:11 pm  

      Thank you, thank you for writing this. It’s so true. And I wish I had said something like this in the article. The question I was asked was… once you’ve left the meeting, what do you do. But, of course, this path is the better and more immediate resolution.

      Reply

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