The ‘mystery’ boss: why your bosses behavior may occasionally look strange

Estimated reading time: 3 mins

I’ve been intending to write about this for a while, so when it was suggested by a reader (John Lau) I feature this subject I took my fingers to the keyboard. I’ve experienced this myself and it’s also the cause of much stress and anxiety in a number of people I have work with during mentorship programs.

Frequently, I’ve felt my boss (in a number of organizations) is on another planet. The feeling was most acute when we’ve both been in meetings with a number of other colleagues from different departments. My boss would say strange things, e.g. use vague, ambiguous terms, say things in conflict to what we had agreed between ourselves, or in some cases, say things are technically wrong to my knowledge. In technical circles, this is typically seen as ‘bad’. This would lead to frustration on my part (particularly as it’s the tendency of technical folk to want perfection), and worse still, on occasion prompt me to correct my boss, creating disastrous results (mostly for me I should add). Why did this happen?

To answer this objectively, I have to mention a few things first:

1) Somebody very wise once said that ‘leadership is a lonely place’. It’s a phrase that reflects the ambiguity a leader sometimes faces when dealing with their followers and the needs of other people. A leader should have integrity, but must also deal with a number of different versions of the truth, depending on their audience. This can put distance between a leader and their followers whilst the ambiguity of a situation resolves.

2) Leadership is about taking people on a journey of change, not just the change itself. A leader must know how to move people towards a change at a pace that isn’t too painful. If the leader has to enact change outside of their direct sphere of influence, then positional power can’t be so easily applied and therefore trust and confidence needs to built up. Sometimes, it may seem that a situation is changing in the wrong direction to the final desired state.

3) A good leader in a technical subject must know when to apply appropriate language. This is a balancing act that gets progressively more tricky as the breadth of the audience increases. As a technical leader with technical followers, credibility can be built by knowing the jargon and the buzzwords. As a leader in a wider non-technical context, credibility grows when appropriate language is used where everyone can understand the message. Technical leaders must choose the level of their language carefully when in front of a wide audience

4) Politics in an organization is unavoidable. Politics creates forces in an organization that are not always obvious, because most of the time they’re out of self-interest. Politics in fact can be a positive force, as well as negative, for stimulating change – self-interest is not always bad as long as it aligns to the objectives and values of the organization in the end. Politics, though, can create a perception of odd behavior when you’re not in the know. A boss who behaves inconsistently due to politicking can be difficult to work for. This is where a boss depends on trust. If you have a boss like this, do you trust her and accept that whatever is behind the odd behaviour has a good reason?

So with these things said, do they explain the mysterious behaviors of your boss? Maybe not, as there are always a mix of factors that can create this perception. During my own experience, rather than trying to fix the wrongs I’ve observed or openly challenged my boss in front of others, I’ve found that an open and honest conversation straightens things out. In some cases I’ve found that it is purely down to my own (sometimes naïve) interpretation of the situation that has confused me. In most cases it’s because of one of the points 1-4 above. Rarely has it been through any malicious intent. If you trust your boss, you’re likely to find that too.

This subject was suggested by John Lau in Manchester, England. (Thanks John)

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