Managers: 5 techniques for dealing with an unpredictable boss

How to deal with an unpredictable manager

A capricious boss can quickly make life a living hell for you and your team: they’re argumentative, ill-tempered and change their mind as often as their shirt. Having one means an increased risk of burnout and lost productivity for the company. You have to take action. But how do you manage a mercurial manager? What procedures can you come up with to protect your team and, most importantly, build some emotional armour? Between agility, psychological decoding and reframing communication in a non-violent way, we’ve got some tips to keep your daily life from turning into a nightmare or a meltdown.

Say goodbye to the perfect professional relationship

What does an unmanageable boss look like? Romain N, a manager in a fast-growing digital company, knows all about it as he has to deal with a volatile boss every day. He has identified two types of response. “On the one hand, when I ask them to approve something, for example, their reaction is often unpredictable because it does not obey logic,” he said. “On the other hand, their reaction is often unreasonable.” Managing your manager is par for the course, according to Ludovic Girodon, a consultant, speaker and author specialising in team management. “Absorbing stress is part of a manager’s job. Professional relationships are imperfect, especially in these positions,” he said. That’s why he insists on one key step: acceptance. “You have to accept the fact that the relationship with this person is not going to be simple. But you have to see it as a challenge and not a burden. It’s a matter of perception,” he said. Girodon advises managers to keep things in perspective when dealing with someone who is bad-tempered. “It’s rare that this person is being intentionally malicious,” he said. Typically, this person is unaware of the effect they’re having. Keeping this in mind is really helpful”.

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Don’t be afraid to give your manager feedback

You often hear about managerial courage, but have you heard of employee courage? It can be very useful in conflictual situations and this approach is key for Girodon. A healthy working relationship works both ways. Instead of simply blaming the other person, consider your own behaviour too. He said: “You have to start with some introspection: am I a good employee to this manager? Am I aware of what is important to them and to what extent do I adapt to that?” Once you have done that, then you can take action. Girodon said: “Have the courage to talk to them using the basics of non-violent communication (NVC): I communicate the problem with concrete facts and then explain what this provokes in me [so as] to then come up with common solutions. The idea is to create a constructive discussion that may not be successful… but it must be done.” This keeps you from being stuck in a victim mindset. Girodon emphasises an essential point, which is also liberating: “We have much more control over our professional destiny than we think.” To achieve this, you mustn’t hesitate to maintain balance in the relationship by repeatedly setting boundaries within your manager-employee relationship.

Identify potential modes of communication

Romain adopted this approach in trying to figure out the psychology behind his boss’s behaviour. “There are bound to be buttons that work with this type of personality,” he said. “In my experience, it’s often the business or performance approach that gets the discussion back on track. These are excellent triggers.” Romain discovered another interesting way of doing this: “I was able to identify some of his sources of inspiration: branding, inspirational leaders, etc. I use concrete examples that appeal to him to show him that he’s going down the wrong path. It’s foolproof!” So his job includes a psychological component, which he could do without.

To take it even further, Girodon also suggests using personal development tools. “Once you’ve become aware of your differences and they’ve been acknowledged, it may be useful to use tools such as MBTI or DiSC. It’s mainly a pretext for coming up with a common operating procedure. It will help you to gain a sense of perspective, otherwise you’ll end up clashing, which will have a negative impact on performance.”

Be a buffer for your teams

Romain now plays the role of “lightning rod” manager, which means that he acts as a filter between the chief executive and the team. The role didn’t exist before his arrival. “Implementing processes and changing habits takes time because the chief executive has to build up trust. But it works well in the long run,” he said. Nevertheless, it’s possible that it may not always work. When that happens, Romain subtly reminds them of the procedure to follow by focusing on the business aspect: “I emphasise that the wellbeing and happiness of the employees are key to company performance. Then, with my teams, I remind them to take a step back: we’re not saving lives here. I encourage them to disconnect and make every effort to ensure a healthy working environment by absorbing the shocks myself.”

This is part of the game: working in a company sometimes means accepting decisions that you do not agree with 100%.

Girodon agrees with this method. “You have to be consistent when there’s inconsistency. Namely, to accept that some decisions are not your own. You may not agree with them, but you have to know how to accept this and share them, with transparency, with your colleagues. This is part of the game: working in a company sometimes means accepting decisions that you do not agree with 100%.” On top of that, disagreements are not a major problem as long as the manager believes in the vision of the company, its mission and its values and its reason for being. This is how they truly protect their teams in the long run.

Stop the downward spiral of negativity

The risk with this type of situation is that it may start a negative spiral that continues with your teams. Girodon shares a key piece of advice: “You have to officially acknowledge your boss’s faults, but also their good qualities, even if it’s hard. The idea is to avoid focusing on the negative aspects as this is the beginning of the end in a professional relationship. This feeds into non-virtuous interactions and spoils life for everyone.” This rational approach will keep it from seeming like you’re all fighting a common enemy. “It’s useless to fight against it,” he said. “You have to stick with the facts and live with the discomfort.”

Romain has managed to curb the negative spiralling thanks in part to his personality. “I’m lucky to be naturally pretty calm,” he said. “I know how to balance things out by being very solution-oriented. Instead of taking on the problem or pressure with no filter, I immediately come up with solutions. And I’ve made peace with my chosen profession. I’m here to solve problems: That’s the bet you make when you join a fast-growing digital company as a manager. Otherwise, it’s better to change careers.”

*Name has been changed to protect identity

Translated by: Kalin Linsberg

Photo: WTTJ

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