Questions from the Real World: November, 2010
“My boss showed up late again — for a meeting she called. I don’t feel comfortable challenging her on it. She doesn’t exactly welcome feedback on her leadership style, if you know what I mean. But I don’t like to have my team’s time wasted, either. Any advice?”
~Anonymous, Seattle, WA
Of course there are ways to respond to this challenge that would be passive aggressive and wickedly fun.
Now seriously, this is really galling behavior and the last thing you can do is ignore it. Of course I’m assuming “late again” means there’s a pattern here. I’m also assuming she is somehow essential to the meetings—that she controls the agenda or that she has to hear the information or ideas communicated there.
So here are several suggestions:
1. If she’s late again, vacate the room promptly 3-5 minutes after the meeting is scheduled to start. When she shows late to an empty room, you can explain calmly that you weren’t sure she would be coming, and wanted to get everyone back to work rather than wait without certainty.
2. If the meeting has an agenda, try to begin the meeting without her. If you can have her walking into meetings that have already started without her, this will decrease her tendency to be late.
3. Ask her what she would have you do in the future if she runs late again. I think this can be done professionally. Would you prefer we simply wait for you in situations like that or is there something else productive you would have us do instead? This is a way of letting her know that her behavior is causing inconvenience without simply complaining about it.
4. Call her or page her promptly at the meeting start time and ask for status. This seems unnecessary and micromanaging over the long run but if you do it consistently there’s a good chance she’ll “get it” and start showing up on time.
But there’s a suggestion I’d make that supercedes all of these- and that’s a no-nonsense, direct conversation with your boss about the behavior and the consequences of that behavior. Leaders get less and less feedback as they move up the hierarchy, and from personal experience I can say that once we arrive in the corner office we still need guidance, mentoring, and coaching from those “below” us in the organization. Now I don’t know how approachable your boss is, or whether you have the kind of relationship that allows for this kind of direct conversation, but wouldn’t it be great if someone could just tell your boss about the negative wake she’s leaving behind her when she shows up late? If you simply CAN’T have that kind of conversation, then there will be others things she does that chap your hide, and you’ll repeatedly find yourself in the same frustrating and powerless circumstance.
I wonder how many of us suffer needlessly from bad boss behavior, while we assume that it’s not our place to challenge it. Or—how many of us protect ourselves from the risk of speaking up and therefore miss an opportunity to help our boss grow and get better at their job. I’d prefer to believe that the vast majority of bosses are capable of hearing criticism if it’s given with care and professionalism.
Hmmm… have you considered the joys of early retirement?
I’ll propose a five-step process. I’d encourage you to play with the suggestions for each step – make it your own. But don’t omit a step.
1. First and most importantly, do everything you can to set aside your anger and judgment. As hard as it might be to imagine, almost all bosses are doing the best they can – given their level of psychological development and the pressures they’re under. If you display anger or condescension, you reduce the chances that the other person will see it your way.
2. Ask her if she’s open to discussing a concern you have. Requesting “permission to speak freely,” as they say in the military (well, they say it in TV shows about the military, anyway) is an important first step, because if she says no, at least you know where you stand. If she says yes, she can’t blame you for voicing the concern, because she’s just given permission… unless she blames you for the way you voice it. Therefore…
3. Before the meeting, prepare your approach to airing your concern. Plan to be as (1) specifically factual, and (2) non-blaming, non-judgmental as possible. For example,
“I’ve noticed that our last three marketing meetings started between 10 and 20 minutes later than scheduled, because you weren’t able to make it at the time you thought you could.” [Ed. note: Sounds a lot less blaming than “You keep showing up late to meetings that you yourself have scheduled! Jeeez!”]
“I know you’ve got tons of fires to put out, but I’m concerned about the time my team loses while we wait – the time we could be spending taking care of business or our customers. What suggestions do you have for us when you’re not able to show up on time?” In other words, put the ball in her court.
If she has a modicum of respect for anyone other than herself, she’ll say something like, “Yes, I realize that that’s not very respectful of me. I’ll make sure that in the future …” etc. To which you might ask, if appropriate, “Is there anything I can do to support you in getting there on time?”
If she doesn’t have a modicum of respect for anyone else, or loves to power trip, she won’t make a commitment to being on time. In which case, you might need to make a request, such as:
4. “I’m wondering if you’d be willing to let us know in advance when you’re going to be delayed, so all of us on the team can make the most efficient use of our time. Is that a reasonable request, or am I missing something?”
If she answers positively, go to Step 5.
If she answers negatively, forget Step 5 and, well, deal with it. You can either:
… and if the frustration level gets too high, maybe there’s another boss out there somewhere who will treat you with the respect you deserve.
5. Follow up with an email, clearly but gently putting the agreement in writing: “I appreciate your openness to discussing my concern this morning. Thanks for offering to let us know in advance when you’re going to be delayed for our meetings. I think it will help us manage our time better and ultimately serve our customers better.”