Crucial Conversations QA

The Ghost of Bosses Past

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,
What do you do when the people who report to you seem uncomfortable in your presence?

I do my best to create an open atmosphere and yet people seem guarded. There is a lot of fake smiling and handshaking going on. Worst of all, I’m suspicious that the people who work for me aren’t sharing their honest views. Sometimes I get the feeling that they’re telling me what they think I want to hear. And yet, I can’t figure out what I’ve done to create this unhealthy tension.


Nonplused in Nantucket

A Dear Nonplused,

This is a hard one to deal with from a distance but let me give it a shot. When there is a power difference—and you’re the one in the seat of power—that alone could be causing the problem. Despite the fact that you may have been on your best behavior, there are some people who are never comfortable with a boss—any boss.

Like it or not, you may be living with the “Ghost of Bosses Past.” Employees are living with the frightening memories of previous leaders who behaved in less than professional ways, so your own direct reports can’t get comfortable with you—fearing that honesty or letting down their guard will only cause problems. No matter how you choose to act, others are nervously waiting for the “other shoe to drop.”

As a consultant, I see this problem all the time. I watch an interaction between boss and subordinate. The boss is easy-going, engaging, and involving, and yet people seem uncomfortable or tense. At first I conclude that the boss is putting on an act for my benefit, and the seemingly incongruous tension is the product of previous encounters. And this can be the case. But sometimes (more often than you might imagine) I learn that the leader is always highly professional and can’t seem to overcome the actions of leaders who came before him or her.

When you’re living with ghosts, the people who work with you are not only unnecessarily nervous, but they also tend to only tell you what they think you want to hear. They defer or “kiss up” to you and this can be both annoying and costly. How do you know what’s right when the experts who report to you only feed you what they think you want to hear?

When you face hard-to-understand tension and come to believe that others are not only uptight but also deferring to you out of excessive respect for authority or even fear of past behavior, you have to first go public with the issue. Express your concerns and ask people to relax, open up, and state their honest opinions and feelings. Explain that you’re finding it difficult to make effective decisions as long as others aren’t sharing their honest views. You want to empower the people who work with you to speak their minds, particularly when they differ in opinion. The best ideas are born out of honest dialogue, where people express their frank views and jointly come to the best conclusions.

Now, asking for honest dialogue when people are already fearful of bosses may not be enough. Your direct reports may snap to mental attention and respond with: Whatever you say Boss!” I’ve seen this happen too. Asking frightened people to open up is akin to shouting “Relax!” or “Be spontaneous!” The request itself kills what you’re requesting. When you (the boss) ask people to “open up” you just might confirm others’ suspicions that you’re in charge and that they need to worry in your presence.

What’s a person to do when a direct approach may not be sufficient? Add to your request for candor the following strategies. Encourage others to disagree with an idea you’ve presented. “Okay, I think I’ve spent enough time explaining why we might want to change vendors, now let’s examine the other side. Why might this be a bad idea?” In a similar vein, call on someone to disagree. “Chris, do me a favor and play devil’s advocate. What could be wrong with the conclusion I’ve just drawn?” Model the behavior yourself. “I tell you what. I think I’ve given enough data on why we should change policies, now let me give the opposite view a turn.” Each of these strategies helps people realize that you’re looking to uncover the truth. You want to hear everything. You value differing opinions. It’s not just okay to express your views, it’s necessary and helpful.

When people do begin to open up and speak candidly, particularly if what they have to say goes counter to current thought or may even be unpopular, thank them for their candor. Watch as people begin to take risks and then bend over backward to reward them for what they found so hard to do. Express your thanks. You don’t have to agree, but let others know that you appreciate their willingness to speak honestly.

Finally, see if there is something you’re doing that encourages people to defer to you. You may not realize that you yourself are encouraging deference in subtle ways. For instance, you ask for feedback, but quietly flinch when someone finally says something. If you’re sending mixed messages, people heed your nonverbals more than your actual words, and they don’t feel safe expressing their opinions.

To find out what role, if any, you’re playing, ask a friend who sees you in action to give you candid feedback. Are you part of the problem? You may learn that your only problem is “ghosts”—that you’re as good as you think. But then again, you may learn that despite your best intentions, you’re doing things that encourage fear.

One final hint: if the friend you ask to give you honest feedback starts to stammer or break into a sweat, take it from me, you’re a big part of the problem.

Good luck,

Kerry Patterson