The Irrational Boss

This past weekend I reconnected with a dear colleague with whom I worked many years ago. He was sharing a challenge he often faces with the CEO of his company, to whom he reports. Please understand, this person and his boss have a wonderful and mutually respectful relationship; however, there are times when my friend says the CEO simply becomes irrational.

I imagine most of us know exactly what he means! For example: we may share with our boss a concern about a particular employee and their need or desire for a more aggressive compensation plan. The boss, not fully understanding the situation, or simply not wanting to deal with it, blurts out: “Well, just fire the $%$#!. If he doesn’t like the pay or working here – he can go somewhere else.”  Or, we may highlight an issue with an alliance partner with whom we have a very strong ‘go to market’ program which has simply hit a rough patch in execution, and the boss quickly suggests: “Let’s just terminate the agreement. We don’t need them – we have two other very strong partners in that area. Let’s teach them a lesson and take our loyalties elsewhere.”  Which, of course we know in both of these situations, are knee jerk reactions and really do not solve the long-term strategic issue.

There are a myriad of examples we could share that represent impatient, frustrated, and often simply irrational reactions from our bosses. So, what can we do to diffuse the situation while still maintaining a level of respect for our superior and ultimating resolving the issue? The one simple suggestion I had for my friend this weekend is an easy way to ditch the drama and try to get at the root of what instigated the irrational response from his boss.

Simply stop and ask the boss – what is it you really want to happen? Nine times out of ten the boss is not really wanting what he initially asked for in the heat of battle. In fact, the boss may even be testing to see if we can handle the situation with decorum and balanced perspective. When we ask ‘what is it you really want’ or ‘what is it that is really eating at you relative to this situation’ several things can happen:

  • We undoubtedly uncover more information from which to base our solution approach. 
  • We will show through our actions our interest and respect for what ‘the boss’ is thinking. 
  • And, we diffuse the emotional response while demonstrating deliberate, patient, and balanced problem solving skills.