Have you ever had a boss tell you they couldn’t (sounded like code for wouldn’t) help you out with a problem?
Just a few years ago, one of my jobs included training first time supervisors on evaluation methods. This training fell into two categories: performance feedback and annual evaluations.
During the training, my focus was on helping supervisors get the best performance out of their people. This was not an original idea on my part. I had learned a lot from a couple of other key people, one of whom taught me the phrase “It sucks to be you.”
You may be wondering why this is important. So did I, initially.
The problem stemmed from how these training sessions would generate very me-focused Q&A sessions. When I say me-focused, I mean from the audience member’s perspective. Keep in mind, my goal was to teach a “you-focused” mentality to new supervisors, to help them work better with their people.
There would always be the question of “How can you say I should help my people achieve a high rating, when my last boss gave me a bad rating without any concern for my future?” or “how can I fix my bad rating from 4 years ago?”
I would try to empathize with them, describing the appeal process from a factual point of view. After one of these sessions that my Chief was sitting in on, we scheduled a discussion later to help me improve my presentations. When we spoke, I asked him how he handled those types of questions. “Rob”, he said, “sometimes it just sucks to be you.”
If you had been sitting in that extra chair, sipping a Pepsi like we were, you would have seen the whole “Jessica Simpson on Jeopardy” look on my face when he told me that.
“You want me to say that?”
“Sometimes, Rob, you have to say that.”
The trick , he went on to tell me, was to stay empathetic about it. Don’t just point and laugh manically. Let them know you care. Note: as the boss you should care. If you don’t, that’s you...not them. Anyway, sometimes life just isn’t fair, and you (they) have to move forward.
He went on to say, “You can’t fix everyone’s problems for them, Rob. Acting like you agree with their plight and saying you’ll try to help them does two things. One, it raises false hope and two, it costs you some of their respect.”
“Chief, if I’m trying to help them, why would I lose their respect?”
“Because you won’t be able to come through.”
Has that ever happened to you? A boss said “I’ll talk to my boss and take care of it”, and then not come through. “Sorry, I tried”. Would you rather hear that, or just tell me it sucks to be me today?
The fact is that sometimes there are problems that simply have no solution, except to move forward and conquer the next challenge. We can’t always go back and right those perceived wrongs in the world. It can be a hard lesson to learn as a boss (I know it was for me), but sometimes the most you can do is help your people move on.
The next time you take a problem to your boss, and they say they can’t fix that one, or if you are a boss that needs to say that yourself, remember that it can be a more powerful answer just to admit that this one is in the books, and just for today, it sucks to be you.