Be irritated and change the rules

Be irritated and change the rules

I recently worked with a great guy named Josh, who’s a very thoughtful leader. In our work together, we tried to focus on his business strategies and ambitious goals. But we kept getting sidetracked because he was so irritated with his boss.

Time and again, we’d wind up at the same problems: Josh felt frustrated being excluded from meetings and confused about how his work was changing. And he left weekly check-ins with his boss feeling deflated and miserable.

Finally, we set aside business strategies and stretch goals. And we focused on one simple thing: improve the weekly meetings between Josh and his boss.

I agree that sounds very dull. But since most of us encounter bosses and other people who occasionally irritate us, I’ll press on.

Know what’s really going on.

I asked Josh to describe a typical meeting with his boss. He explained how he provided a detailed update across a variety of complex subjects every week for nearly an hour. Then I asked him to think about what made him feel awful during the past few meetings.

After thinking for a moment, he said it happened when he asked his boss for role clarity and to include him in meetings, often in the very last minutes of their meetings. His boss became defensive and argumentative every time, compounding Josh’s frustration.

I repeated back what I heard, not quite able to hold back a small grin: “So after listening to your unscripted, detailed update for nearly an hour, you pushed your boss for more direction on how to do the job you just updated him on?”

To Josh’s credit, he laughed and admitted he’d never thought about it that way.

Be irritated, and then change the rules.

Now it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for role clarity and to be included in meetings.

But for Josh, it backfired every time because his boss didn’t have answers. And when Josh thought about it, he could see he was waiting for his boss… to be a better boss.

Is this irritating? Absolutely. Is it fair? Nope.

But once we were clear on the dynamic, Josh could change how he showed up for these prickly meetings.

First, Josh prioritized how he felt, which directly impacted his work. He could continue to feel frustrated and terrible. Or, he could be irritated – and still choose to feel OK.

Next, we defined what ‘improvement’ meant for these meetings. Here I intervened with a constraint: the ONLY goal for these meetings was for Josh to leave feeling at least as good as he did at the start.

This caveat allowed him to focus. And it put him 100% in charge of success for these meetings. What his boss said didn’t matter.

Finally, Josh committed to prepare before these meetings, so he would arrive feeling calm, curious, and alert.

Create simple structure.

What first seemed like a dull task became a rich experiment. Josh was able to explore new ways to handle a confusing and messy situation with a person who really irritated him. You could call this emotional intelligence or political agility. It’s also leadership.

Regardless, Josh created a list of three things he would do for every meeting.

1. Prepare
2. Be succinct
3. Ask for input

And this short list, neatly printed in the upper left corner of his notebook, quickly became a mental model for Josh – and a mantra: Prepare. Be Succinct. Ask for input. Prepare. Be Succinct. Ask for input.

Control what you can control.

Josh’s list is great.

Be prepared meant preparing an agenda with only 3 topics, which Josh sent to his boss before they met. Any more than three topics derailed the meetings.

Be succinct meant keeping his updates brief and articulate, which he practiced by planning what to say ahead of time, avoiding unnecessary details that clearly frustrated his boss.

Ask for input required Josh to change how engaged his boss. He prepared simple phrases and questions to solicit ideas and input. “Here’s how I’m thinking about that. I’d love to hear your thoughts.” and “What do you think?”

Morale and moral of the story.

These new questions and Josh’s approach improved the conversations with his boss a lot. And the meetings ended with Josh feeling as good as he had at the start.

I wish I could tell you that Josh’s boss quickly recognized him as an amazing leader. That was not the goal of his experiment, nor is it the moral of this story.

No, Josh’s boss continued to irritate him regularly. And he didn’t always remember to include Josh in key meetings.

But other people sure did.


Burst Coaching
helps you think through creative solutions to tricky situations.


Photo by Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash
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