Monday, September 1, 2003

Boneheaded phrases and the bosses who say them

Joan Lloyd

OK, I admit it. It's hot and I'm cranky and I just feel like a good rant...

Sometimes managers say some boneheaded things. Here are some classics and some ideas about how to respond. If you'd like to e-mail some of your favorites, I may feature them in part 2.

1. "When I was in your job..."

What you want to say is, "You mean when dinosaurs ruled the earth?" Jobs morph approximately every two years and in technical fields they evolve even faster. So, when a manager assumes that his approach will still work three years later, it is exasperating.

Of course, sometimes the manager is just trying to empathize and do a little coaching based on his experience. But when the advice requires a carbon test, it's so old, you are better off listening (then ignoring it) or calmly explaining, "That would have worked well then but here's how the situation has changed..." You will educate your boss about the new complexities you are dealing with.

2. "This isn't coming from me. My boss (or other big shot) wants it done this way."

What you want to say is "You chicken!" Usually, when a boss makes this statement, he or she is weaseling out of telling you to do it themselves. Or, the manager is spineless and his or her boss really is making your manager say or do something.

Either way, playing the "boss card" is a power play for weaklings. At the very least, the boss should disagree with his or her manager privately but then show a united front once a position has been taken, whether they agree to disagree or not.

Depending upon the situation, you may want to reply, "Well, what do you think?" This question would be particularly important if the subject happens to be about your performance.

3. "Can't you two just try to get along?"

What you want to say is, "Thanks a lot, you clueless wimp!" This is the mark of a conflict avoider. The last thing this boss wants to do is step into a disagreement to help you unravel it.

What's worse, when the conflict has grown out of some work problem (which applies to 90 percent of conflicts) such as conflicting goals, overlapping turf, or political maneuvering, you really need the manager to step in.

Assuming the conflict isn't personality related, you can say, "This has nothing to do with personalities. I need your advice or intervention because the disagreement is concerning our responsibilities (or authority, or whatever). At the very least, I need to know where you stand on this."

4. "He's mad at you, but I don't want you to go talk to him."

"Oh great," you think, "you're giving me an anxiety attack but won't let me do anything about it." This boss is the soul sister to the boss in #3. She is worried about ruffling feathers with a client or peer in a different department but then lets you stew in your own juices, instead of allowing you to confront the person to resolve it.

You might respond, "I want to make things right between us, so I'd like to talk to the person." If she says, "Oh, I've already smoothed things over, so let sleeping dogs lie," respond with, "I can't work with her in the future with this unspoken issue between us. I need to clear the air." If she still refuses, say, "In the future I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't tell me things you hear if I can't fix it myself. It only makes me upset and frustrated and creates walls between my teammates and me."

5. "You need to work smarter, not harder."

You want to say, "What are you smokin'? It's easy for you to say, since you've dumped the work of three people on my desk after downsizing to cut costs!"

Instead, make a list of everything you do and sort it by A (highest priority/importance and value), B (routine, but you should do it because of your expertise), and C (should put it on someone else's desk or forget it.) Set up a meeting to go over the list with your manager. Search for creative ways to get rid of some of the C items.

In the future, when something is tossed on your desk, ask, "Is this an A, B or C priority?" Sometimes you need to educate your boss about your workload realities.