Simon Terry

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The Blocking Boss

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Obstruction is everywhere

The commonest question I am asked when talking to potential change leaders is:

What do I do when my boss doesn’t support my work, my change agenda or my leadership approach?

That challenge is one I am personally very familiar with it. I am not alone. Recently in conversation with Geoff Aigner one of the authors of The Australian Leadership Paradox we were both reflecting on how commonly change agents experience this challenge. The topic came up repeatedly in conversations the authors had exploring Australian leadership in preparation for that book. Many of the reasons for the conflict are tied to the four paradoxes that the Australian Leadership Paradox book outlines. If your boss prefers the other side of paradox, you are unlikely to agree on a way forward. However, both Geoff and I agreed that overcoming a blocking boss likely deserves a book of its own. Instead, here’s a short post from my personal experience.

In this post, I refer to a boss because it is the concept most experience. However, the person in a hierarchical position of power may not be your direct boss or even in your line of management. In other cases the blocking may be more abstract to pin down with distant committees or an abstract ‘they’ opposing your work. In these latter cases, it is essential to first separate the myth from the reality and find real people with whom discuss the work. One can’t argue with a perception.

Here is some lessons from my experience working with a unsupportive or blocking boss:

  • Be wary: Aware
  • Embrace your power: Ignore 
  • Change the conversation: Influence
  • Work the system: Evade 
  • Flee the system: Escape 

Be Wary: Aware

Before you continue with any change that is opposed by the hierarchy you need to be aware. You will need to check your motivations. You will need to understand your own strengths, weaknesses and resilience (each will be tested). You will need to be clear on your change, its impacts, risks and consequences. You will need to understand the landscape incredibly well. You will need to see the networks in the organisation, the political agendas, the personal agendas, the influence, the strategy and much much more.

If you are simply in the flush of enthusiasm for an idea, stop. If your ego is bruised by rejection or you don’t like criticism, ostracism or exclusion, then don’t continue. If it has become a power game to continue, then stop. Important change is not about you. Leading important change is about delivering better outcomes for everyone. Leading this kind of change takes enduring commitment and purpose to deliver for others. A bruised ego is a warning sign that this is personal. 

Only continue if you can see the landscape, the benefits and risks to others and your own motivations clearly. Only continue if you know that the journey will be rough and unrewarding and you have the strengths and the resilience to persevere. The experiences you have in this difficult leadership journey will demand continuing self-awareness and system-awareness. You will need to manage this carefully and know when to protect your self (see Flee the System: Escape)

Embrace Your Power: Ignore

The simplest technique is to ignore your boss and continue on. Of course, this is rarely the safest. It also misses the opportunity to understand whether your boss might be right (see Change the Conversation: Influence)

When you understand the difference between your job, the role you are playing and your authority, you may discover you don’t need your boss to endorse your work to achieve the change that you want. We often have far more influence and resources at our disposal than we expect or understand. Remember we have a uniquely human capacity to constrain our power to act. These constraints are insidious. Thinking you need support of your boss or organisation for action is one artificial self-constraint.

Without formal support from the hierarchy there is much you can do by taking on new roles and leveraging your authority in your networks. If you do this in a community with others, then you will magnify your influence. (see Work the System: Evade)

Sadly, you may find this also means you will receive no recognition for your work from your boss. You may even see your performance discounted for having engaged in activities that were not required or were seen as a distraction. Ultimately you might lose your job for insubordination or the threat you pose to the authority of your boss.

Most people are not comfortable with this level of risk. Therefore it is advisable to use this approach in combination with the others below. Remember if you believe enough in the change, losing your job when you can’t bring about change might not be such a bad thing (see Flee the System: Escape)

Change the Conversation: Influence

Every leader needs to have hard conversations to influence change in action. You should seek to engage your boss in conversation about the change, if only to understand their perspective more deeply. Prepare for this conversation.

How well do you understand your boss’ goals and drivers? What reasons does your boss have for blocking you? Does the strategy of the organisation or the bigger system give you any levers to change their perspective? Are there facts that you know that your boss does not or vice versa? What is it that you see that you may not have discussed adequately with them?

Before you begin this conversation recognise that the conversation will go best from a position of strength. Prepare. Find others who can help you with your change and to influence your boss (see Work the System: Evade).

Choose your timing. Make sure you have done all that you need to do on the other areas that you boss has asked of you. You don’t want this conversation to become a feedback session on how you fall short of your role’s performance expectations.

Prepare for the conversation.  Seek to find alignment on goals & purpose first. Only then move on to the implications and finally to agreeing new actions.

Hard conversations are not easy and may not be appreciated. The difficult conversations might lead you to further insight into changes required or to see change is impossible (see Flee the System: Escape). However, change will not come about without continuing to have hard conversations.

Work the System: Evade

Not all change uses official channels. Not all change is public and approved. There will be times when you might need to run a rebellion or even a revolution to make change happen, particularly in large organisations or large systems. At worst, you are going to have to play the politics of power and influence to at least continue your work or at best find someone more influential to release your constraints.

To continue to work on change when it is opposed, you will need to become well aware of how to lead in the networks in your organisation. You will need to use networks to avoid the obstructionist managers and build a coalition that can continue your work. This may even enable you to stop completely, if a coalition of others takes up your work.

You may need to even go into the networks outside your organisation and push change back in with influence from external sources. External networks, like customers and community, can validate the reasons for change. That can help you find new ways to influence your boss (see Change the Conversation: Influence) or more confidence & strength to continue (see Embrace Your Power: Ignore).

A boss who is asking you to stop work on change will not appreciate activity to perpetuate that change in this way. If you are working at the boundaries of the organisation take care that you are not jeopardising both your goals and the organisation. However, it is almost always required that you work the system and its rules to advance your cause when your boss is opposing needed change. The risks you are taking might lead straight to Flee the System: Escape.  Running an evasive strategy is rarely fast or effective first time. You will need to prepare for a long campaign and many setbacks. Be ready to persist.

Flee the System: Escape

Not all change succeeds. Sometimes persistent & effective opposition is a warning signal to leave. Your organisation may not want to become the organisation you would like it to be. 

Sad as it may be, in this case the best option is to get out fast. Staying will only lead to the organisation rejecting your changes and you.

Leave and take your leadership elsewhere. You will find greater reward working elsewhere and you might even find a way to make the change later.

Conclusion: Be Aware. Lead. Continue.

Be aware first and foremost. Maintain that awareness as circumstances change.  If you have a purposeful & needed change to lead, the only option that you have is to continue. When you stop, you lose your authority to lead. You will become part of the blocking mechanism of the manager who opposed you – by your actions, by your words or by your example.

Networks route around obstructions. You should too. Keep going. Be aware. Persist. Learn. Change your approaches but above all continue until you succeed or must escape.  

Good luck for safe and successful change leadership.

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