When Your Boss is Looking Over Your Back

“A bad workman quarrels with the man who calls him that.” – Ambrose Bierce (“Saw,” The Devil’s Dictionary)

 Second-guessers — bosses who delegate authority and then take some of it back — are a very odious sort. And most management books advise you to confront second-guessers and try to get them to see things from your perspective.In some cases, that may be necessary. But in most cases I’ve witnessed, second-guessing is a response (maybe not the best one, but a natural one) to a real problem. So before you call your bossy boss into your office and set him straight, make sure his worries are groundless.

The first thing you need to do is calm down and take a larger perspective. Repeat after me: “I am not perfect. It is possible for me to be wrong in this case. If I am wrong in this case, it doesn’t mean I am human waste. It doesn’t mandate suicide.”

If you detach yourself sufficiently from the criticism, you might even find humor in your imperfection. After all, if imperfection isn’t funny, what is?

Once you are comfortable with the idea that you may be wrong, try to figure out how, how much, and why.

What, exactly, went wrong? What happened that shouldn’t have? What didn’t happen that should have? Did you have all the resources you needed? Did you follow a sensible program? If you had to do it again, from scratch, how could you do it now to produce the desired outcome?

You need to ask yourself these questions — and you should also ask a trusted friend or colleague. If there is someone in your organization who is a peer to your boss and will keep your confidence, ask him.

Once you understand what went wrong and how it could have been right, set up a meeting with your boss and tell him: “John, you asked me to do this — and my impression is that I did a poor job of it. I’ve spent some time thinking about the problems that occurred and how I responded to them, and I’ve come up with a way to avoid this kind of poor result in the future. I’d like to tell you what I’m planning to do and ask you, after you’ve listened to my ideas, about other recommendations you might have.”

I can’t imagine any boss not being impressed with a speech like that. Of course, you’ll be setting yourself up for an even larger disappointment if you don’t follow through. But if you are brave and smart enough to take this approach, you’ll be diligent enough to do what you said you’d do.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]