I have a great boss. He's hard-working, he's fair, he knows our business inside and out, and he encourages us to stretch and do our best. He worked his way up from the bottom and has succeeded without stepping all over others. I admire that. But his social skills leave something to be desired. When he gets nervous, he will try to break the ice by joking about inappropriate things. Nothing he says is racist or sexist, it's more dumb and juvenile, the kind of stuff that kids in Grade 8 might find funny. While our clients have been too polite to say anything, I can just tell they think he's an unsophisticated dweeb. I don't want to hurt his feelings, but seeing him make a fool of himself is painful to watch. What should I do?
THE FIRST ANSWER
Howatt HR Consulting, Kentville, N.S.
This is a good news story. Your boss has demonstrated that he has integrity and has proven himself to be a credible leader. But it's your view that he has a blind spot with respect to how his behaviour is influencing customers' perceptions of him. Most likely your boss knows you respect him and appreciate his leadership approach. The good news is you now have an opportunity to help him discover his blind spots and move beyond them so customers can come to respect him as you do.
Employees' opinions can help shape a leader's behaviour. The first step is to calibrate his perceptions and then start a conversation about customer confidence. Share a personal story of when you wondered what the customer really thought, and then directly ask, "Have you ever been concerned about how a customer perceives you?" Regardless of what he says, respond with, "Interesting. Could I share one observation?" He will most likely agree, if he has time to listen. And then you can continue with, "I am so happy to have you as a leader, but I have noticed a few times when you are talking that some of your comments come off as if you are tense or nervous. If that's the case, I have an idea. Would you be interested?" Encourage him then to consider doing a 360-degree feedback process.
The Globe and Mail has an online tool called 360 In Vivo that could be printed off to help get the conversation going. The first step is for your boss to become aware of his blind spots and accept them. Only he can decide to change his behaviour, once he decides what he is willing to do and learn.
THE SECOND ANSWER
Founder of the Courage Crusade, Toronto
First, be grateful you have a boss you admire. Some people never find that.
Second, be careful about your assumptions. You are assuming the client thinks he's an "unsophisticated dweeb" but maybe they don't really care. I personally would rather have a supplier who is effective and socially awkward, versus one who is an ineffective Casanova. Being socially awkward doesn't necessarily mean he's not taken seriously and it doesn't mean he's not trusted and respected.
While I do believe you're concerned about his image, you are probably also concerned about your image (it's only natural). Do you worry that his awkwardness makes you look bad? Do you feel it jeopardizes your job?
Discussing this kind of thing with someone is always scary, especially with a boss, but as long as you're looking out for his best interests, it shouldn't hurt his feelings. Here are a few tips: a) state your case as your opinion, rather than fact; b) share a few examples of his awkwardness so he can better understand your point of view; c) offer a potential solution for him to consider trying.
And if you're still nervous about the discussion, once you've prepared for it, don't be surprised. As human beings we want to be liked and we want to look good at all times, so the possibility of hurting or offending someone is always nerve-racking. We worry that we'll look insensitive or we'll look like we're a know-it-all.
But that's what courage is – being afraid and doing it anyway.
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