Ask a coach: How can middle managers talk to bosses who don’t listen?

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Team Intellect
Nov 29, 2022

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Team Intellect
Contributed by experts including ICF-accredited coaches, clinical psychologists, as well as HR practitioners with a heart to elevate employee wellbeing across Asia.

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At work, it is common to encounter a cocktail of different bosses. While bosses who don’t listen are frustrating across the board, middle managers often bear the brunt of their dismissiveness and, worse, disrespect.

If you’ve ever felt like your input goes in one ear and out the other, you’re not alone. In fact, past research has shown that individuals in positions of authority tend to reject ideas from subordinates and experts alike. Such a work dynamic is not only painful but also ineffective for the organisation in the long run. Below are important messages that leaders miss when their employees eventually go quiet. 

Feedback: Research by the McCombs School of Business research has shown that managers are prone to “selective hearing” when receiving feedback that does not align with their views. When confirmation bias gets in the way of employee listening, the company pays the price of employee disengagement. 

Work issues: According to statistics, only 23% of employees shared that their managers responded to feedback helpfully. One of my clients in coaching who recently sought guidance regarding a policy update from her manager was left to figure a way out. This creates stress for her as she would be held responsible for her mistakes.

Ideas: In my sessions with clients, I am honestly impressed by their ideas and suggestions for the company. However, their input was ignored in many instances, leaving them to walk away with the impression that the management does not value their contribution.

When bosses don’t listen 

Good leaders empathise, listen, and avail themselves to their teams. They pay attention to their employees’ perspectives, welcome discourse, and resolve disagreements by reasoning with them. Without these attributes, conversations turn unproductive and relationships with employees deteriorate. 

That said, before writing your boss off as an ineffective leader, it helps to first give them the benefit of doubt. For example, their behaviour could be explained by:

Cultural differences

While leaders tend to be perceived as approachable individuals in Western workplace cultures, the same can’t be said for Asian environments. In the latter, leaders are often perceived as authoritative figures who direct. Employees, on the other hand, are executors in charge of carrying their orders out. In the latter context, speaking up may be deemed “disrespectful”. 

Low priority

Why do good ideas fall on deaf ears? Well, they may simply not be a priority in your manager’s eyes. Like any other employee in your organisation, your boss has specific roles and responsibilities by which his performance is measured. If the issues you flag aren’t on his to-do list, they could miss the mark. 

Communication styles

These include passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive, with the first three styles of communication being less ideal. For instance, a manager who communicates aggressively may outrightly deny you (“you are wrong!”) upon receiving negative feedback. Likewise, responding passive-aggressively to your manager (“I’m okay with this, but don’t be surprised if someone else gets angry”) wears your relationship down. 

The DEAR MAN GIVE FAST framework

Of the above reasons, the only thing we can control is our communication style. How, then, can employees in the passive or passive-aggressive categories assert themselves healthily? 

As a dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) practitioner, I use the DEAR MAN GIVE FAST framework to help individuals develop and maintain interpersonal effectiveness. Whether you’re making a request or resolving a conflict, it helps to get your message across respectfully and effectively. 

Here’s a scenario: A new company policy requires team members to log their hourly activity when working remotely. This act of micromanagement is not only disruptive to your team’s workflow but also makes them feel distrusted. This has harmed both their productivity and morale. You make a suggestion to amend it, but your boss doesn’t take it seriously. 

How can you apply the framework in this situation? The first of three steps, DEAR MAN, is all about communicating facts objectively and non-judgmentally.

Describe: “I noticed that the new policy has affected my team’s productivity and morale.”

Express: “I feel upset as they are starting to seem disengaged.”

Assert: “I understand the new policy X is important for accountability, but we could reduce the frequency of logging.”

Reinforce: “This amendment will benefit overall performance and our company culture. Other team leads are facing this problem too.”

Mindfulness: When sharing, keep your focus on the policy in question and refrain from changing the topic.

Appear confident, effective, and competent: When sharing, maintain good eye contact, use a respectful tone, and avoid over-explaining.

Negotiate: Be prepared to meet your boss halfway.
“If we can’t reduce the frequency of logging, daily stand-up meetings could free up substantial time for deep work too.

The second step, GIVE, is about engaging with your boss during the conversation.

Gentle demeanor: Avoid physical and verbal aggression
Interest: Listen to your boss and ask questions for clarification
Validate: “I can see why an overview of everyone’s tasks is important to you.”
Ease: Smile and use humour where appropriate

The last step, FAST, is about maintaining your self-respect throughout. 

Fairness: “I understand that changing a policy is tiring work, but I’m concerned that the current solution may not be sustainable.”

(No) Apologies: Apologies are not required when requests are being made respectfully.

Stick to your values: Hold on to your beliefs and non-negotiables.

Be Truthful: Do not exaggerate of lie about the situation to make your point.

If all else fails, try radical acceptance

The ability to accept situations you can’t control without judgement helps to reduce suffering. Radical acceptance isn’t about suppressing unpleasant feelings or rejecting reality. Instead, it encourages us to observe our thoughts and feelings mindfully without getting caught up in an emotional reaction. 

If your boss still doesn’t listen despite your applying the above, here are some coping statements that will help you come to terms with discontent.

  • “It’s best to stay present and focus on what needs to happen at the moment.”
  • “I can feel upset with my boss but still manage my team’s situation effectively.”
  • “It’s possible for me to accept my circumstances without being resentful.”
  • “People (including my boss) are human, and neither entirely good nor bad.”

Become an effective communicator with coaching

Dealing with a boss who doesn’t listen can be challenging, but professional guidance can equip you with problem-solving skills that preserve your state of wellbeing. At Intellect, our ICF-accredited coaches have helped middle managers overcome difficulties with performance reviews, delegation, and coaching team members. Learn more about Intellect here.

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Team Intellect
Contributed by experts including ICF-accredited coaches, clinical psychologists, as well as HR practitioners with a heart to elevate employee wellbeing across Asia.

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