How to Approach an Apathetic Leader

There are few things more frustrating than a disconnect between what a supervisor sees as important and what their team recognizes as valuable.

Several years ago I had a job that required editing technical articles. After a change was made to the types of articles we were editing, the other editors and myself realized that the previous process was no longer feasible. We needed more time to write and edit because the articles were becoming more technical and obscure. But when we approached our leadership, they seemed to think we were complaining because we didn't like the work, not because we genuinely needed additional time. They didn't see a need for reducing the total output to accommodate for the additional writing time. This greatly increased the rate of turnover as editors, feeling unheard and unsupported, left the company for better work environments elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this scenario happens all the time in all sorts of workplaces. And it's not just the employees that feel frustrated; this type of discrepancy leads to resentment on both sides. So how can you make a difference if your boss seems apathetic to your team's needs?

Although there are certainly malicious and narcissistic bosses in the world, it's safe to assume that most leaders want what's best for their organization. Given this, apathy towards employee issues often comes from a lack of awareness rather than a lack of care. If your boss seems apathetic, likely one of two things are happening: 1) they haven't been made aware of the issue, or 2) the issue was miscommunicated or not fully communicated to them. 

Assuming leadership is aware of an issue is a common mistake. Before you assume your boss is apathetic about your concerns, verify that they even know about them. If they have been made aware, consider that there was a miscommunication. 

One of the most common mistakes we see is not communicating in a way that your audience understands. We tend to communicate in the way we like being communicated to, in most situations. That is, if you're a relationship person you probably like hearing details about how an issue affects others personally or makes them feel. On the other hand, if you're a logical person you only want facts and data to back a claim; hearing personal details is a major turn off. By communicating a message to your leader in a way they don't understand or relate to, they may have missed the severity of your claim. 

The solution to all of this is simple: assuming your boss in genuinely interested in the good of the team, they will want to hear about any suggestions or challenges you have. Your job is to communicate it in a fashion they can connect with easily.

We recommend a four step formula to presenting any idea or issue to leadership:

  1. Identify why your issue or idea is important with evidence. This appeals to the logical leader who needs data to understand a proposal. Come prepared with relevant statistics (production rates, sales numbers, etc.) or research (studies that back your claim). A logical person needs hard facts, so any reports you can prepare will be highly valuable.
  2. Point out any effects on yourself or your team. Once you've laid the groundwork with hard facts, you can make a more emotional appeal. This might mean showing how stress or happiness levels have been affected by a particular situation.
  3. List specific examples. This step ties the first two together by providing evidence but as it relates specifically to you or your team. Give examples of how an issue has affected you, or give examples of how a change would have a more positive impact on your team.
  4. Finish with the bottom line. What's your point? End with the goal of your conversation. Is there a change you want your boss to make, or a new process you want to implement with your team? This is the time you make your appeal for a change.

Looking back, I can recognize that myself and my fellow editors made an emotional appeal that didn't resonate with leadership. We were experiencing a valid issue, but we were unable to communicate it in a way our boss could relate to or understand. Using this four-step process would have led to a much more successful outcome, both for our personal stress levels and for the greater good of the company. 

Before you assume your boss is aloof for no reason, consider that a miscommunication has taken place. Don't let apparent apathy prevent you from appealing for a change—just make sure you come prepared with more effective communication! 

About the Author

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Jennifer Stanford is a sought-after Trust Coach and the CEO of Emergent Performance Solutions, as well as an author and speaker. Her entrepreneurial spirit, combined with years of practical experience gives her specialized insight into business and psychology.

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