Bad boss doesn’t always listen, but there’s hope

Manager's Handbook, Prague Business Journal, December 2002

December 2002

Scenario: Jana was a successful Czech project manager working for an international consulting firm. Although her boss valued her competencies and achievements, she felt a growing sense of frustration in communicating with him. One morning, after a team meeting finished, she called me and blurted out: “I cannot take this anymore. He never listens to me!”

Response: Having worked with Jana in the past, I knew that she was usually pretty good at dealing with her emotions and daily business frustrations. So something significant had triggered this unexpected reaction.

After a few minutes she finished venting, calmed down and asked me, “What can I do? He never listens to me.”

When dealing with an emotional reaction, the first step is to identify the real problem. In this case, Jana felt that her boss never listened to her. Unfortunately, when we use a universal statement such as never, we are generalizing a specific experience to make it true in all circumstances.

My first objective was to ask Jana questions that would help her find her own answers. I said: “He never listens to you?” Because she was genuinely looking for a solution to what had become a real frustration in her business life, she honestly replied: “Oh well, of course he does listen to me, but not enough.”

My next objective was to shift her focus by asking her to recall situations when she actually got what she wanted. “When does your boss listen to you?” I asked. This question made her shift her attention from what was lacking to what she wanted, which was to get her boss’s attention to her suggestions.

Changing focus can be a stretch for many people, and it took Jana a few minutes to answer. Then she quietly said, “Well, he does listen to me when he asks for my advice.” So what was the problem? For Jana, it was that she wanted her boss to listen to her suggestions and ideas not only when he was asking for them, but also when she felt he could benefit from her input. One could argue that her boss was a lousy manager not to listen to Jana when she had great ideas she was willing to share. But that’s a different topic.

What Jana needed to accept was that her boss did listen to her-but only when he felt he needed to. Her choice was to either wait for him to ask for her input, which would ensure her ideas would be taken in consideration; or make suggestions when she felt her ideas could be a valuable contribution and risk being disappointed if her boss did not take them in consideration.

To avoid frustration and disappointment, Jana had to wait for her boss to ask for her advice and keep her mouth shut the rest of the time; as difficult and frustrating as this might be.

Jana was momentarily satisfied that she had identified what was really bothering her (that her boss didn’t welcome her suggestions when she felt she could contribute to the project.) She now understood how to deal with her immediate frustration and avoid it if she wanted to.

Unfortunately this understanding brought to the surface another issue: her need to work with someone who would appreciate her contributions on a regular basis.

For some people, money, power and status are sufficient to make a job rewarding. But many others must experience meaning or purpose in the work itself in order to feel good about themselves and their jobs.

Jana’s boss didn’t realize that by denying her the opportunity to express her ideas to feel that she was contributing to the project on a regular basis, he was depriving her of finding her work meaningful. And by doing so he was actually de-motivating her. Most managers are looking for ways to motivate their employees. Unfortunately, they often overlook the situations when they are actually de-motivating them. This is an example of a manager not acknowledging their employee’s need to find meaning or purpose in their work by being able to show their initiative. As managers, we would do well to consider whether we’re motivating or de-motivating our team.

Karin is a business coach and a specialist in cross-cultural understanding, communication and team-building.