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10 ways to get your boss to listen

When CBS first launched the reality series Undercover Boss, I was skeptical, to say the least. For one thing, I don't watch reality TV unless it's a cooking show. I'm also reasonably sure that no CEOs I've ever worked with in the high-tech industry would "go undercover" to connect with employees.

Then I started interviewing the Undercover Bosses, and a common theme emerged: "management doesn't listen or care." More often than not, the undercover CEOs wanted an unfiltered view of what was going down in the trenches with the ultimate goal of improving worker conditions and sparking employee engagement.

Come to think of it, as a young engineer at the bottom of the org chart at Texas Instruments, I had more than my fair share of beefs with management that I thought, at the time, went unheard. Of course, after long years scaling the corporate ladder, I've developed somewhat of a different perspective.

So, having been on both sides of the issue, here are the ten most important things to consider if you want your boss or your company's management to actually listen to you:

Make sure it resonates with them. All too often, employees think everything's about them. It's not. When you want to get someone to listen, you need to position it in terms of what's in it for them. Your ideas and feedback may be great, but if it's not a priority for the powers that be, it won't be heard or acted upon. Understand that managers have a long list of top priorities and an even longer list of responsibilities. Everything else more or less falls in a crack.

Don't beat around the bush. Most senior-level managers and executives aren't interested in nuance and, these days, nobody has time to listen. So give it to them straight, right between the eyes. Get in, tell them what you think, what you think they should be doing differently or better, answer any questions they have, and get out. End of story.

Survive the pinch of middle management
Survive the pinch of middle management

Consider your timing. Employees often act like everything is a life and death crisis. Sometimes companies have major stuff going on -- finance issues, a merger or acquisition, a major product launch or customer issue -- and your boss or management is distracted and can't be bothered. If you think that might be the case, pick a better time; you may not have more than one opportunity, so do it right.

Stay clear of politics. It's an unpleasant truth that most executives won't admit to employees and some won't even admit to themselves: in businesses and companies big and small, politics can be a big deal. Whatever you do, don't point fingers or place blame. Try your best to discuss the issue without throwing individuals under the bus. You'll come across far more professionally, as well.

Don't be difficult or intimidating. You might not believe this, but a lot of employees are way more intimidating and difficult to deal with than their bosses. If you want to be heard, don't be angry, emotional, annoying or inflexible. Just because he's the boss doesn't make you any less of a pain in the butt. Just get your ducks in a row and try to relax and be yourself. Also, it wouldn't hurt to have a sense of humor and humility. 

Don't waste your breath on an incompetent boss. Oftentimes, bosses simply aren't competent enough to realize how important it is to take the time to hear an employee's or a line manager's views and share their own perspective. Concepts like communication, engagement and motivation are lost on these people who probably got their jobs via the Peter Principle. If that's the kind of boss you work for, don't waste your time.

Look at the big picture. What might seem obvious or important to you may not be such a good idea one or two levels up. The higher up you go, the more important it is to see the big picture. So be direct and maybe you'll get a straight answer. It's entirely possible that your ideas or concerns are just a bit naive or nonsensical. If that's the case, your manager may find it easier to just nod politely, say, "Okay ... great ... thanks for your time," and wait for you to go away. It happens.

Be sure you're talking to the right person. People are always complaining to the wrong person, often preaching to the choir. It happens all the time. Before you dump on your boss or some random manager because they have a certain keyword in their title, make sure they can actually do something about whatever it is that's bugging you. And remember, most management job descriptions don't include "listen to Bob," so don't act all entitled or you might end up making things worse on yourself.

If the entire management team is dysfunctional, forget it and move on. There's really no easy way to say this, so here it is: company culture is top-down driven, and when the executive management team operates in a dysfunctional manner that ripples down through the organization. If that's the case, you'll be better served networking to find a better place to work than wasting your time trying to affect change.

Maybe, just maybe, they are listening. Your boss may have sent your idea or feedback up the flagpole and, for whatever reason, it just didn't resonate with the mucky mucks above. Maybe he just hasn't circled back around to tell you or he doesn't want to admit defeat because it's a blow to his ego or he thinks it might demotivate you. Maybe he's listening and just isn't the decision maker. Also, these things take time. Try to be patient.

If you're on the other side of the management fence and want to improve the effectiveness of your team, you should definitely check out: 10 things great managers do.