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Managing your Manager - 22 May 2013

There’s a great scene in the movie Matilda, based on the fabulous book by Roald Dahl, in which the slimy father, Harry Wormwood, is giving his kids a tour of his used car yard. He shows them how he sells vehicles in excess of their real value, how he glues rather than welds bumper bars, and how he uses a power drill to wind back the odometer.

Hid daughter, Matilda, is appalled. “Daddy, you’re a crook,” she says.

“What?!” replies her father, walking contemptuously towards her.

“This is illegal,” she protests.

“Do you make money?” he spits at the 6-year-old. “Do you have a job?”

“No,” says Matilda. “But don’t people need good cars? Can’t you sell good cars, dad?”


“Listen, you little wiseacre,” retorts her father. “I'm smart, you're dumb. I'm big, you're little. I'm right, you're wrong. And there's nothing you can do about it.”

There’s actually a lot she can do about it. The rest of the plot chronicles her revenge on the irrational adults in her life. You, too, might have irrational bosses who think they’re smart, you’re dumb; they’re big, you’re little; they’re right and you’re wrong.

But you, too, can change the situation. The process begins by understanding the concept of bounded rationality. This is when people’s decisions are negatively affected when they’re restricted by a lack of information (what they don’t know), a lack of cognition (what they can’t comprehend), and a lack of time (what they can’t accommodate).

What this means is that your senior leaders, when presented with a wide variety of decisions, might just go with the simplest and easiest - but that might not be your preferred option. If you’d like greater influence over that decision-making process, you need to somehow reverse the limitations of information, cognition, and time.

Information: Provide your leader with more than one option – but never more than three – articulating the pros and cons of each. Your boss, however, might not be interested unless what you communicate is framed in the context of how it meets his or her problems and objectives. Frame your proposed solution based upon those issues, not your own.

Cognition: People more easily understand information when it’s communicated in their own language. This means using data if your boss is analytical and using stories if your boss is expressive. It also means building a solid relationship that makes you appear credible, so that your opinion is valued and trusted rather than ignored.

Time: Carefully select the best time to approach your superiors. As a starting point, identify their circadian rhythms that determine whether their energy levels are at their peak in the morning or in the afternoon, and then bring up your proposal then. Also, be cognisant of their working style. If they’re fast-paced, talk quickly. If they’re relaxed, slow down.

As the narrator of Matilda says, “Every human being is unique ... for better or for worse.” Your task is to discover the unique idiosyncrasies, priorities, and preferences of the person you’re trying to influence, and then adapt your style in a way that makes them think a little more rationally. You know, a little more like you.


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