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How to Work with a Leader Who Doesn’t Care About Details

Executive Summary

Sometimes you work with a leader who is focused on big-picture ideas but isn’t interested in hearing the countless details that go into making initiatives successful. While this can be frustrating, it’s not helpful to challenge the person upfront. Instead, hear them out completely and reflect their enthusiasm back to them. Share in the leader’s excitement before pointing out problems. Then ask clarifying questions like, “What would you like the outcomes to be so we can get the best results possible?” Similarly, refrain from describing the nitty-gritty of execution when they’re still at the conceptual stage. Promise to return with a draft plan that they can react to. Then check in frequently and explain your progress. This gives you the chance to reaffirm their goals and desired outcomes and gives them this opportunity to adjust course before too many costs or difficulties pile up.

Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

It’s not uncommon to work with a leader who has big, creative ideas but doesn’t really understand operations or implementation. These people aren’t interested in hearing the countless details that go into making initiatives successful or worrying about complications that can occur: they assume success is inevitable and that their team members will handle any snags or obstacles. While it’s good to feel trusted, this lack of understanding from a leader can leave employees feeling frustrated or abandoned when they face tricky situations or encounter barriers when implementing the boss’s ideas.

Rather than challenging visionary leaders upfront, and possibly triggering anger or defensiveness, here are three ways to get their support.

Hear them out completely and reflect their enthusiasm back to them.

At one organization I worked with, the chief of staff was deeply frustrated by her CEO’s passionate commitment to his own ideas and his unwillingness to recognize or wrestle with the particulars of the new initiatives he was asking the organization to launch. Even worse, he habitually ignored the turmoil he caused by switching his focus and intensity from one initiative to another, seemingly on a whim. And when the chief of staff tried to explain the problems they would confront while carrying out his visions, the CEO thought she lacked insight and was being negative and timid. So I encouraged her not to point out problems, but rather to begin the discussion with a demonstration of her commitment to the results the CEO wanted by asking affirmative questions like, “That sounds exciting! Tell me how you see that working,” and “What would you like the outcomes to be so we can get the best results possible?” These prompts encouraged the CEO to expand on his ideas in greater detail and often allowed the chief of staff to raise relevant points about other initiatives so she could elicit more thoughtful responses from the CEO.

Refrain from describing the nitty-gritty of execution when they’re still at the conceptual stage.

At another client company, a vice president felt his boss, the president, was abandoning him to cope with the exigencies of implementation that the president didn’t believe existed. Instead, she treated the vice president as if he was unnecessarily anxious. The vice president realized that if he asked too many questions up front, the president would be dismissive and uncooperative, so he learned to promise to return in short order with a draft plan for the president to review. The vice president would then go over the details briskly, showing how the plan matched the president’s priorities, and presenting implementation choices, with an overview of pros and cons, for the president to select from. With something concrete to react to, the president was much more willing to evaluate the options and consider the most effective alternatives that were presented as part of the plan.

Check in frequently and explain your progress.

Because big-picture leaders typically don’t think through the details themselves or recognize crucial impediments, they may change their minds as the implications of their directives surface. Providing them with periodic reporting that reaffirms their goals and desired outcomes gives them this opportunity to adjust before too many costs or difficulties pile up. One leader I worked with tended to give instructions that weren’t always clear or practical, but she was willing to shift her views when presented with the facts on the ground. Her team members came to recognize that she was almost never tolerant of pushback to her initial ideas, so they developed quick prototypes or pilot implementations that gave them early results for the leader to respond to. This approach also allowed the staff to point out problems that she couldn’t deny existed.

Some visionary leaders need to feel that they’re maintaining control; others don’t have the patience to learn how their team members’ practical knowledge and experience can improve their concepts. But by consistently showing support for their ideas, sharing only as much detail as they can comfortably digest, and presenting both questions and results in stages, you can help them tolerate more discussion or debate earlier in the process.

Source: HBR.org

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Gender Equality Issues

Are you being treated unfairly at work because of your gender? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Michelle King, the director of inclusion at Netflix and author of The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work. They talk through what to do when you and other women on your team are being marginalized, you’re a man experiencing reverse discrimination, or gender bias is blocking your advancement.

Download this podcast

Listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe on the Dear HBR: page. Email your questions about your workplace dilemmas to Dan and Alison at dearhbr@hbr.org.

From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:

HBR: What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women by Catherine H. Tinsley and Robin J. Ely — “We do see sex differences in various settings, including the workplace—but those differences are not rooted in fixed gender traits. Rather, they stem from organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them.”

HBR: To Address Gender Bias at Your Company, Start with Teams by Todd Warner and Michelle King — “Until organizational leaders have the bravery to take a holistic look at diversity and inclusion and understand their true drivers, we’ll be stuck with half-day workshops. And as we all know, a half-day workshop just won’t cut it.”

HBR: How Men Can Become Better Allies to Women by W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith — “But including men in diversity efforts is not as simple as inviting them to a gender-equity event. These efforts often reveal reluctance, if not palpable anxiety among targeted men. Sexism is a system, and while it’s a system that privileges men, it also polices male behavior. Understanding that is important to changing the system.”

HBR: Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men by Tessa L. Dover, Brenda Major, and Cheryl R. Kaiser — “We do see sex differences in various settings, including the workplace—but those differences are not rooted in fixed gender traits. Rather, they stem from organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them.”

TRANSCRIPT

A complete written transcript of this episode will be available by January 2, 2020.

Source: HBR.org