Last year, our department’s vice president was laid off and the entire group was moved under the Director of Operations, someone I didn’t know very well. Since the change, he has not made much of an effort to get to know our team and I have had only a handful of interactions with him. On a recent performance review, he commented that I, “can come across as close-minded if I offer an alternative to his suggestion.” I am not sure what he is referring to, especially considering our limited interaction. I am a licensed professional engineer, so some things I work on have to be “just so” from a legal perspective but, otherwise, I feel I welcome alternative solutions on my projects. How can I approach this director to get some feedback without it seeming like I’m arguing with his assessment or trying to defend my position? How can I demonstrate to my managers and colleagues alike that I am open to suggestions?
Open to Suggestions
Years ago, my colleagues and I found ourselves in a similar situation after we were shifted to a new reporting structure. It was a little different in that our previous boss remained in the organization and we’d still see him. For a while after the change, one of my colleagues would tell him, “You’ll always be the boss of my heart; even though you’re no longer the boss of my now.” At first, I considered it to be a clever quip, but I now understand that it’s more than a clever quip. It reflects the difficulty many experience following a change in leadership. You’re trying to understand new performance expectations, how to best approach your new boss, how he or she will respond to different circumstances, and what his or her preferences are.
I recommend the very next action you take is to schedule a meeting with the Director of Operations. The purpose of the meeting is not to list off a bunch of examples of how you are open and flexible, but rather to understand his perspective shaping the feedback he gave you. I’d start by stating your purpose, something like, “I want to make sure we work well together, so I’d like to take time to really understand how you see our working relationship—especially your views about how open and/or closed-minded you believe I am.”
During the meeting, you’ll want to spend as much time as possible in listening mode rather than explaining or justifying mode. Listen specifically for details and examples of how you have actually been closed-minded. Don’t settle for broad descriptions like, “You’re not open to alternative points of view.” If necessary, probe for more detail. Ask him to describe the last time he experienced that with you. Get specific, observable behaviors. You need to understand where his story came from so that you’re not in the position of trying to talk your way out of a situation you behaved your way into. At the conclusion of your meeting, thank him for his time and leave him with an invitation to get back with you with any additional information that might occur to him.
At this point, you should have enough data about the Director to take some action. All that questioning and probing you did is less about you, and more about how he sees the world, as well as how you fit into that world. Look for the times, situations, and circumstances where he most often sees you as closed-minded, and then identify what you can do in those moments to augment the “open-minded” data stream you’d like him to tap into. To do this, I recommend you work with symbolic actions.
A symbolic action is any action you take where other people who are watching will walk away having concluded what you care about, what your priorities are, and even what you value. Now for those of you who have leadership positions, what percentage of your actions would you guess are symbolic? Did you guess 100%? If you did, you would be correct; it’s everything you do, or don’t do. When you show up, if you show up, what you say, what you don’t say, and even how you allocate your budget shapes your specific brand of leadership. All of your actions send messages. While these actions are especially relevant to leaders, they can also be applied to situations where you’re trying to change your boss’s perspective.
Ask yourself, and feel free to extend this question to trusted others as well, “What could I do that demonstrates that I am, in fact, the opposite of closed-minded?” An accompanying question would be, “What could I do or say when I can’t be flexible to help him understand why?” Sometimes it’s as simple as telegraphing your upcoming actions by alerting him to what’s going to happen before you do it.
You’ll also need to put more thought into what behaviors, if seen consistently, would change his current data stream. It may be helpful to think in terms of behaviors that involve sacrifices of time, ego, or even previous priorities.
While changing his mind will require some time and attention, if you’re deliberate about it, you can have much more influence in shaping your overall joint experience with your new boss.
Best of luck,