Negotiating with an unreasonable manager

by Calum Coburn

Negotiating your way successfully through career challenges are the building blocks that will make you a great manager. Learn how to negotiate with an unreasonable manager.

Unreasonable and demanding managers, you've either worked for one or heard horror stories from those suffering under them. Let's take a few minutes to look at how you can negotiate a happy resolution to your issues. We should ensure that things are seen in the proper perspective to understand just how unreasonable they are being before taking action. Of course, you have never been unreasonable...

Neurologists remind us that despite evolution, we still possess a 'reptilian brain' stem sitting at the top of our spinal column called our 'amygdala'. Our 'reptilian brain' is still hard wired with 'fight or flight' responses that helped our ancestors survive threatening situations. Whilst your manager may not be as threatening as a saber tooth tiger for example, the chemical response our brains trigger and our resultant responses are all too often similar.

So, you may have considered the 'flight' option of changing your job or even your company - though this may seem an extreme solution. In negotiation we call this your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). Ok, so you may like the company, you have great colleagues you would miss, and you really are enjoying the challenges the role presents you with - so perhaps it's best not to flirt with the 'flight' idea. Hang on just a moment! BATNA's are a valuable source of power. Imagine how much stronger your position would be if you confronted your manager in the knowledge that you had another fantastic job offer up your sleeve. Even if you didn't tell a soul about the offer, you would have more freedom to speak your mind and be more prepared to walk away. If you are at the point of wanting to kiss your old job goodbye - well then at least give your manager a chance to reconsider their position by telling them of your attractive offer. So, setting in place a 'flight path' wins you power and freedom.

Some people say "It's my job, I work hard for the company and see no reason why "I" should be the one to walk - that's just not fair!" Too true. So are you ready for a 'fight'? Aristotle wrote that "Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry at the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy." So before you walk your 30 paces and draw pistols, let's take a moment to look at the best ways to win the battle, and the war. We would like to share with you a few potentially insightful questions.

Is your manager like this with everyone? If so, don't take it personally and start to become curious as to how others are able to handle them, or at least cope with them. If there is one person with whom they are more reasonable, spend time with this person and quiz them on what they do or don't do that keeps your manager happy. They may know a skill or two that could be gold dust to your long-term career prospects.

Has your manager always been like this? If not, then perhaps they are going through a high stress phase or even a personal crisis. Phases and crises pass, so maybe it's best to 'batton down the hatches' and weather the storm. Alternatively a confidential word with your HR professionals may prove to be of great benefit in providing your manager with the helping hand they sorely need, but were too afraid or proud to ask for.

How well do you know your manager, personally speaking? It's easier to be unreasonable with someone you are only formally managing and don't really know. It's human nature to treat those we know and like more fairly. So how about being sneaky and getting to know your manager, and letting them get to know you more? What have you got to lose? A lunch or tea break here and there, perhaps you share a sport in common. Challenge them to a game! (Be careful not to take it out on them in the squash court!).

Are the issues they are being unreasonable about the real issues, or is there a hidden agenda buried somewhere beneath the surface? Perhaps you've heard psychologists say that we pick fights for the smallest or silliest of reasons - that the real cause for our upset stems from something that happened some time back that has been festering away. Could their nose still be out of joint from something you had long forgotten about? If you can't put your finger on any one thing, perhaps your colleagues have the distance to impartially identify the root cause. They may be itching to tell you, if only you can bring yourself to trust them enough to ask.

Lets say you have decided that you need to tell them how you feel and resolve this issue once and for all. How do you go about doing this? Here's how not to do it, a method that too many people use. Don't tack it onto the back of another meeting and mention it towards the end. This can give the wrong signal. They may think it is not so serious as to warrant a separate meeting, that it can be mentioned as an after thought instead of being worth pushing to the top of the agenda. No, rather schedule a meeting for the express purpose of resolving your working relationship together. Give them a clear signal that this is an issue that you are taking seriously, and that it deserves immediate attention. Don't delay - get the meeting arranged as soon as possible. Of course be careful not to book a meeting when they are about to dash out to another important meeting - their attention could be divided. Check their diary first.

So since you've called the meeting, it's likely you will be setting the agenda and painting the picture. What picture do you want to paint? A big mistake would be to paint the dreary reality, and take pains to fill in the dark shades of detail. Far better to 'begin with the end in mind' - Steven Covey's second self leadership habit. Paint a big canvass of how it could be when you are working harmoniously together. Your manager can be invited to add their brush strokes to your picture and make it a shared masterpiece. If you do feel it necessary to draw comparisons to the current dismal reality, don't make it personal. Think about talking from the company's perspective, rather than your own. Your manager will probably be far more motivated to fulfil their role of having a productive team, rather than to make this the most enjoyable work environment you personally could imagine. Don't forget to make mention of the probable cost to the company if the current status quo is maintained - this motivates them to move away from the future worst case and towards the picture you've created together. Ensure you invest more time talking about the many benefits that will flow to your manager personally and the company, when he / she starts to work with you in creating the changes that will make your masterpiece complete.

Negotiating your way successfully through career challenges such as these are the building blocks that will make you a great manager. Who knows, in time perhaps you will be sitting on the other side of the table listening to a disgruntled member of your team. Don't worry, when faced with this challenge, keep a copy of this article on file and slip your subordinate a copy along with a knowing wink and smile.

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