I received a request on LinkedIn for an article about how to work for a capricious boss – one who is prone to sudden and unpredictable changes in behavior and decisions. There also may be a lack of communication on their part, and an expectation of mind reading. It may seem like a simple, straight-forward question…but within it are a number of sub questions to shed more light on the overall context:
- How long has the behavior been going on? The entire time you’ve worked for this boss? Or, was there once a positive working relationship and then things changed?
- Is the capriciousness directed at everyone, or is it just directed at you?
- Is the boss mean-spirited or does he or she change their mind a lot but is essentially good-natured about it?
And I could likely go on. This is to say that the very generalized answers I’m about to give are just that – very generalized answers. If you’re in this situation and would like a specific analysis, reach out. I’ll be happy to help.
So, back to the question at hand – dealing with a capricious boss. Generally speaking, here are the steps I would go through:
A Self-Awareness Check
Anytime you’re in a situation where personalities are at play, I like to start off with a self-awareness check. It can be very easy to assume that your antagonist has the worst possible intentions with their behaviors, but this is rarely the case. Most of the time, people are just going day-to-day, trying to do the best they can. When different personalities are involved and have a pretty high degree of conflict, awareness about this conflict and a few minor adjustments can make a world of difference.
To begin, I would ask the following questions:
- What personality type are you?
- What personality type does your boss have the characteristics of?
- How might those types be in conflict?
There are a lot of tools to help you figure out your type, and your boss’s type, but I think that Everything DiSC is far and away the best. Here is an overview of how DiSC breaks things down – individuals typically gravitate to one, or no more than two, of them:
I won’t go into the full details of the DiSC model in this post – visit this post for more information.
So, for example, if you are an “S” and your boss is a “D”, it wouldn’t surprise me at all that your boss may seem capricious. “S’s” can have a tough time with change and “D’s”, on the other hand, can seem very fast-paced. It may almost seem as if the boss has attention deficit disorder! And if this is the case, it can work both ways – it is entirely possible that your boss may view you as inflexible.
It would be easy if people behaved consistently…but they don’t. This isn’t to say that looking at the personalities involved is the absolute solution to the problem – there may be more going on than this – but if you can find answers simply by considering the personalities involved, it can offer some pretty easy fixes.
Try new strategies
I love the following quote: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always.” Keep in mind that you boss may not be aware of what they are doing and, especially if this behavior started out of nowhere after a good working relationship, there may be something else going on that you don’t know about. A simple conversation may be able to fix many of the things that are bothering you.
If that doesn’t work, try some of these options:
Your boss is in the power position here, so if you’re not ready to leave your job, you need to try to play by his or her rules and see if you can make it work. Armed with the information from the first step, you can start to come up with some new strategies to try. Though not an absolute, bosses displaying capricious tendencies are most likely to have some “D” so the sample strategies here assumes that type.
- Ask “What do you mean by that?” Just because you’re saying the same words does not mean that you that you’re saying the same thing. During the course of your conversations with your boss, constantly be checking in to make sure you have a common definition. That can cut down on confusion, and reduce the number of changes later on.
- Give Them Options. When you need your boss to make a decision, do the prep work beforehand to present them with options, and pros and cons for each. Then present the information clearly and succinctly, and ask them to make the call. If they don’t have all of this information up front, or if the information isn’t clear and straightforward, it can be difficult for them to decide on one option or another – they need you to help “manage” them.
- Follow-Up In Writing. Once a decision has been made, just do a follow-up in writing (a short email will do) to summarize your meeting and confirm the decision. This gives them a chance to change their mind and tell you up front, before you start implementation. If they consistently change their mind afterwards, doing this in writing can provide documentation later if you need to escalate the problem.
Is it toxic?
Not all capricious behavior is toxic – some people are just wishy-washy, or may not agree with your work, or may be trying to personally develop you. As annoying as that may be, it’s not mean-spirited and not really harmful. They may not even be aware of what they’re doing and a quick conversation can help alleviate the problem.
But sometimes, this behavior is an indicator of a larger problem that may fall under the definition of workplace bullying. If this is the case, do not underestimate the significance of this problem – the reality is that in cases of bullying, less than 20% of organizations will intervene to help the target when it’s reported. Most of the time, the end will be when you leave your job, either by quitting or being fired.
What does workplace bullying look like? Here are some of the characteristics »
If you find yourself in this situation, here are some thoughts about moving forward:
- Have your “Plan B” ready: I can’t emphasize this enough – you will likely be on the losing end of this fight, especially if your boss is an executive in the organization. Ask yourself “If this doesn’t work out…or, if I get fired tomorrow…what would I do?” Have a plan ready to go.
- Don’t go to HR. This might seem counterintuitive, but HR is not there to help employees. They are there to help the organization. In most cases, HR is going to support management and defend the bully.
- Mount a Fight. Your best bet in a bullying situation is to solicit the support of a high-level, neutral, executive. Make sure you have documentation when you approach them to build an objective case. You may not be able to change your boss, but you might find yourself with a better answer than leaving entirely.
- Get Out. If you have no luck fixing the problem, your best bet is to go find a place where you can be happy. Being a target can suck the life out of you, and it will eventually make you physically sick. It’s important not to exist in that environment for any longer than absolutely necessary.
- Don’t assume the worst possible intent. Sometimes people are just different, and those differences can impact our perception of the situation.
- Think about what your boss’s personality type is, and how they might conflict with yours.
- Make small adjustments to your behavior and approaches to see if they make a difference.
- If there’s no ill-will involved, and your boss simply isn’t aware of what he or she is doing, sometimes the best way to tackle it is a simple conversation.
- If it’s a toxic/bullying situation, plan your exit strategy.
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