First-class coach

My boss orders us around but has no technical expertise...

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I'm having real problems with my boss. He was appointed six months ago and comes from outside our sector. He has no technical knowledge of what my team and I are doing, but that doesn't stop him ordering us about. I hate being told what to do by someone as lacking in experience and understanding as he is. How can I change his behaviour?

A: In the complex organisations of today, it has become the norm for senior managers to be responsible for specialist and technical functions of which they have no first-hand knowledge. It's a particular challenge for managers with this role to be able to set goals, inspire achievement or even monitor the progress of these specialists. Without the relevant knowledge, how can the manager establish priorities, judge performance or make the right decisions on resources?

Your boss has this problem in spades. He's undoubtedly stressed by this position, and the tactic he is using to disguise his insecurity is to issue directives. He is adopting a management style that is comfortable for him: his one-way communication doesn't invite contrary opinions and avoids challenges. But his command-and- control style is the antithesis of what a competent manager would do in his situation.

Competent managers appreciate the gaps in their knowledge and the potential danger these represent; they seek enlightenment from those with relevant data and opinions. Without having to become a specialist themselves, they gain an understanding of the issues and opportunities, and the personalities involved. As the interface between the specialist team and the rest of the business, they become adept at communicating in both directions, translating the needs and pressures on either side. They understand that lack of knowledge is a weakness, but failure to acknowledge or address it is an even greater one.

So what can you do to change your boss's behaviour, which threatens to damage the effectiveness of your department? Unfortunately, pointing out his weaknesses is likely to make him more defensive and more desperate to keep control. I suspect he's already sensed your hostility. But rather than being his fiercest detractor, you need to transform yourself into his trusted confidant: someone who can advise him and help him to make better decisions and avoid the pitfalls and embarrassments that lurk for the unwary. You can do this by tackling both his areas of deficiency: knowledge and management style.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so help him gain more than a little, of the right sort. You could, for example, get a young, enthusiastic member of your team to produce a bluffer's guide to current thinking in your specialist area, in layman's terms. Give this guide a more flattering name and present it in an attractive, accessible format, and perhaps offer it to your boss under the guise of something to pass on to others in the organisation whose understanding is clearly not as advanced as his. You could invite him to attend a conference with you, but give him the option of letting you go alone if he's too busy and presenting him with edited highlights.

As a way of tackling his inappropriate management style, you could arrange a meeting with him at which you deliberately sit at right angles to him (avoiding the confrontational head-to-head position) and, recognising his superior knowledge of management, suggest that he needs good information to make good decisions and that you'll volunteer to provide him with regular updates on important areas. Keep your tone friendly and your body language open. You'll be modelling the type of management style you'd like him to use with you, respecting each other's expertise and recognising that you are both managers with a single goal: making the department as effective as possible.

If he accepts your offer, make sure you feed him data on the achievements of your team that he can pass upwards as evidence of his skill as a manager. That way, you'll be helping your team to be better appreciated within the organisation.

It's natural for you to wish to have as little to do with him as possible, but, as a newcomer, he may already be feeling isolated. To exclude him from your group will only add to his stress and his need for control. Try being friendly instead. Invite him to department activities - especially social ones. It's harder to order people about if you've shared some personal time with them.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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