Tell your boss what you really think

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY From the time we're young, we're taught to treat authority figures differently. We spend our youth alternatively revering and rebelling, a dance we all do to find the right balance between the parental attention we need to survive and the desire to make our own rules, like our parents do.

Not surprisingly, our early perceptions aren't quite accurate. Not even adults get to make all their own rules. There are laws to abide by, spouses to negotiate with, and of course, bosses. That's probably the first thing that really throws us for a loop in life: The shocking realization that the tyranny of parents and teachers is just the beginning.

What does any of that have to do with your climb up the corporate ladder or the effectiveness of your organization or business? Well, employees are most effective when they respect their manager's position as a team leader but otherwise treat them as they would anyone else.

Unfortunately, almost nobody does that. Most employees are far too reverent or even fearful of management. They speak of them in hushed tones and hold back on what they really think. They treat them too much like authority figures -- parents or teachers, perhaps -- and not enough like leaders of organizations with jobs to do.

That's not good for employees, managers, organizations, or companies. It stifles healthy conflict and communication. It fosters groupthink and all sorts of unhealthy organizational dynamics like finger-pointing, CYA mentality, and sugar-coating "yes men." It maintains the status quo and throttles innovation.

The one thing that authoritative leadership does that nobody talks about is it affects the entire organization's upward mobility. It holds everyone back. Employees don't move up because they're afraid to shine for fear of rocking the boat. Team effectiveness suffers so the organization underperforms, which holds its management back. Nobody grows.

So, who's at fault? Popular wisdom says the villain du jour is the "bad boss." It's certainly been a common topic around here. We've talked about how everyone goes through the same stages of human development but some people get stuck on the way to adulthood and maturity. Some of those people become dysfunctional, bullying, authoritative bosses. That's true enough.

How to deal with a bad boss
7 signs of a dysfunctional boss
The 5 stages of leadership development

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that, for whatever reason, you perceive your boss to be too much of an authority figure. I happen to think that's extremely common. Here's why and what you can do to change it.

You see, I get hundreds of emails from employees, managers, even executives seeking advice on all sorts of management-related issues. And I've got to tell you, the vast majority are resolved when I advise them to do what they could easily have figured out for themselves. In many cases, I bet they already know what to do, at least on some level. So why don't they just figure it out and do it?

Honestly, I'm not really sure. They claim to need a coach or a mentor to give them a push, a license, empowerment, an objective viewpoint, or something similar. But I suspect they may want an authority figure to tell them what to do to overcome their perception of the boss as an authority figure, although I doubt if they're consciously aware of that.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm always happy to help readers. After all, that's why I write this blog. But if you'll indulge me for just a moment, let me share an idea that may prove remarkably useful to you, regardless of what level of responsibility you have.

If you've got a management-related dilemma and you find yourself mulling it over and over in your mind, I want you to try this: Write down your concern as cogently and concisely as you can, as you would if you were writing to me. Then schedule a one-on-one with your boss or whomever you're having the issue with and tell him the same thing you wrote.

Before you walk into the meeting, however, imagine the other person as just a flesh and blood human being. Not your boss, not your CEO, not an authority figure, just a man or a woman with friends and a family, someone who laughs and cries just like you do. Walk in with no expectations, just an open mind. Then share your concern, ask them what they think, and listen to what they say.

If you can't do that, if you're too emotional or frightened, then you may have waited too long and built things up too much in your mind. In that case, you may need to take some time off or perhaps you have some issues of your own to deal with.

If you can do that, however, chances are you'll walk out of the meeting feeling somewhat relieved, better informed, and knowing you accomplished something. Even if your boss is one of those dysfunctional, authoritative types, you still accomplished something. You learned that it's not your problem and you should probably start looking for a better place to work.

Go ahead and try it. Then be sure to tell us all how it goes.

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