Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

I’ve got a boss who’s impossible to please. In more than two years of working together she has yet to acknowledge any good in my work even though I’ve got a solid record of outstanding performance with everyone else in the organization.

I’m currently a Director and I’m hoping to make Vice President but I think if she doesn’t give me some positive evaluations it will kill that possibility – and she’s ‘in tight’ with the President. I don’t want to sacrifice my track record of successful performance I’ve accumulated here and I certainly don’t want to play political games (I likely wouldn’t win!); so what other options do I have?

Response:

I understand your frustrations and applaud your continuing, consistent effort to maintain your performance standards despite the circumstances; this is the mark of a true professional. However, it’s not my praise or recognition you’re seeking so let’s take a look at the root causes that might apply here.

You may be dealing with

  • A leader who’s committing the popular sin of ‘failing to clarify expectations’
  • A ‘tough rater’, one whose standards are exceptionally high for whatever reason
  • A significant difference of opinion regarding the actual value of your contribution
  • A lack of objective awareness of what exceptional performance might look like
  • A misguided strategy based on the belief that ‘hungry rats fight harder’
  • Someone who is both ‘political’ and intimidated by outstanding performance by a subordinate.
The good news is that the first five of these can be addressed by a single strategy; the final one may demand a different approach. Let’s discuss the single strategy up front because even if the cause is the final option above, you’d benefit by making an effort of this type before resorting to an Armageddon approach.

The common theme of the first five reasons is that expectations are unclear, unrealistic or undefined. So we need to create mutual awareness of what they are or could be – mutual in the sense that both sides have an equal stake and that there’ll be benefits for both parties.

Your objective is to identify the rules for ‘success’ – what constitutes success in both outcomes and related processes and the style and format in which those results are to be delivered. We also need to clarify how this success, once achieved, is going to be recognized and rewarded.

Begin by preparing your own mindset; you’ll want to be objective and constructive so make a note of the emotional impact that past and present frustrations have had upon you. Rehearse the stories you’re telling yourself about your boss’s motivations and bring yourself to the point that you can confidently expect a fair and objective outcome to your discussion,

Next create a safe setting by asking for permission to have the discussion at a time/place that’s conducive to a positive outcome, and which emphasizes the shared benefits of reaching agreement.  You could say something like, "Boss, I’d like to talk about my performance and contributions for the next quarter. My intention is to do an outstanding job, achieve the desired results and to help you and the team to succeed. I’d also like to earn an ‘outstanding’ rating in my next performance review.”

The opening statement clarifies your intentions and should assure her that your purposes are above-board in corporate terms; your statement should also encourage openness and safety for what follows.

Now we get down to the detail. You ask, "In order to do this I’d like you to help me to understand what I need to do to make an excellent contribution and to earn that rating”

If your boss’s expectations are clear in her mind, this should invite her to share the information with you; listen actively (clarify, confirm and summarize what you are hearing). If her needs are not well formulated in her mind the discussion should contribute to thinking it all through; ask questions which will clarify and encourage as much detail and ‘real-life’ examples as might be needed.

A useful technique is to enquire about what you could start, continue and/or stop doing that would make a difference, and also what kind of things should you do more/less of to enhance your results. Keep your focus on outcomes, processes and standards but also ask about format and style once these have been defined.

If outcomes are vague or unduly complex, then counter with a request for frequent review meetings. Ask too about ‘critical success factors’ – the things that have to ‘go right’ if success is to be achieved. Oftentimes, defining the boundaries of performance is as useful as describing the final results expected.

You can also prepare and offer some ‘objective’ external standards for evaluation where your performance either meets or exceeds the requirements of other persons/interest groups inside or outside the organization. This would be helpful if standards of performance are loosely described or ambivalently stated, and it helps to avoid ‘your opinion versus mine’ situations.

You end the discussion with a confirmation of your new understanding, "If I accomplish what we’ve agreed within the time frame(s) would I then be recognized as an ‘outstanding performer’? " If you get a non-committal response then go back for a better understanding; if it’s affirmative, document your new understanding in a follow-up memo.

If all this fails to deliver because you discover that there’s no intention of resolving or clarifying the relationship on her part, you may need to use heavier armament – go up the chain of command or take your case to Human Resources for arbitration. This won’t help your ongoing relationship with your boss so use it only as a last resort –and make your best effort as above before you try it.

The vast majority of situations like this are the result of the leader failing to make expectations known or clear, and this happens far more frequently than it ought. An open and constructive attempt on your part to rectify the imperfect understanding will normally be appreciated and rewarded.  Go for it!

I hope this helps.