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Coping With an Unpredictable Leader

It’s an especially powerless feeling to watch the leader of your organization behave erratically. Yet you know you need to do something since your leader’s disagreeableness, snap decisions, and emotional venting are having a negative effect on your organization’s reputation and your own ability to do your job.

Since you don’t have a direct relationship with your leader, you’re at a loss about what to do. The ways to deal with an unpredictable manager don’t apply and there’s no way to manage up because you’re too far removed from the leader’s sphere of influence.

What can you do when the top dog at your organization is the one with the reckless mood swings?

Be patient

Sometimes unpredictable leaders change their minds. They’re unpredictable that way. Perhaps they’ve had a new idea, their enthusiasm has wilted, they’ve been distracted, or they’ve forgotten what caught their fancy as time passed.

Resist the urge to react immediately to the latest whims of your unpredictable leader. Give their latest idea time to settle, just in case they’re as indecisive as they are unpredictable.

Mind your mission

Your organization’s mission is enduring, and will most likely survive an unpredictable leader. Let your mission—and the vision and core values that support it—give you clarity and confidence when your leader fails.

Proudly put your mission on display in your workspace. Print it on a wallet-sized card so you always carry it with you. Set boundaries based on what your mission says you should do in your job and what you should say “no” to.

Form a united front

Unpredictability means your leader probably isn’t doing much leading. If that’s the case, it’s up to you and your colleagues to unite and fill the leadership void together.

Within your team or with your closest colleagues, decide how you’ll maintain productivity, make decisions, and accomplish your shared goals. When problems arise, be ready to back each other up and find solutions in collaboration.

Shore up trust

When your leader is unpredictable, the people in the community you serve need you and your colleagues to be more dependable than ever. Earn their trust by doing as much as you can to make sure your organization follows through on its commitments.

Be responsive, consistent, and honest, and listen carefully to the community’s concerns. Even if you aren’t able to act immediately or fix the problem, you can listen and assure them that you’re learning as much as you can now to make better decisions in the future.

Plan for the unpredictable

You and your colleagues need to find ways to stay productive amidst all the unpredictability. Devise ways to streamline your processes and decision making so that you can be nimble.

Break up longer-term projects into a series of more small steps with shorter timelines and clear milestones, so that it’s more of a liability for the leader to undo progress that’s already been made. Early in your planning process, identify the potential barriers and risks you face each step of the way, and decide now how you can best respond in the future.

Pick your battles

Your leader’s unpredictable behavior might aggravate and even embarrass you. But, if you spend every day distracted by what they’re doing, you’ll find yourself mired more deeply in the mess they’ve made. Unless their latest wandering whim directly affects your ability to do your job, you should seriously reconsider if it’s worth your time and energy.

If you decide it’s a battle worth fighting, do more than point out the problem. Step up into a leadership role by being the person who takes charge and proposes a range of possible solutions.

How have you coped with an unpredictable leader? Share your experiences in the comments.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, writer, and speaker based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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13 Comments

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Valarie D, Clark

Excellent piece of information! Very insightful strategies for organizational implementation by employees who may feel threatened when exposed to these behaviors by persons in leadership positions.

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Profile Photo Lauren Girardin

I’m glad you’re getting real value out of this article, Valarie. It’s certainly key for employees to remember that you are not necessarily alone. Seek out the support of your colleagues and together look for organizational solutions to overcome the challenges of an unpredictable leader.

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Profile Photo msingleton

An unpredictable boss can bring overwhelm and aggravation if you let them get to you. I would add to Lauren’s already great list:

Rise above the situation. Problems are rarely solved at the same level they are manifest. How do you rise above the chaos?

To underscore Lauren’s point — Keep your eye on the mission and not on the obstacles.

Build a strong and unshakeable character so you don’t give other people the power to negatively impact your day. Unpredictable bosses, and others, don’t have control over your state (emotions) if you don’t grant them that control.

Respond rather than react. Sometimes acknowledging their frustration can help. Saying “that sounds very difficult” or “how can I (we) help?” can help shift the boss from rant mode to solution seeking mode.

Set reasonable boundaries. Know your limits. How much is too much? What options do you have when boundaries are crossed?

You can “coach up” with your boss by having a respectful, solution focused conversation about how to resolve issues that feed the unpredictability. Respectfully share with them how the chaos is impacting morale and productivity. They may not be aware of this.

This is a huge and important topic. Thanks for addressing this Lauren!

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Profile Photo Lauren Girardin

Thanks for sharing all those tips, msingleton. Most of what you bring up can be useful if you’re in your leader’s circle of influence. Unfortunately, many people are far outside that circle. This article is aimed more at people who don’t have direct access to their leader.

I talk about several of the points you brought up in my other article on how to deal with an unpredictable direct manager. Check it out! https://www.govloop.com/community/blog/deal-unpredictable-boss/

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Profile Photo Anita Arile

Love your article.. wouldn’t mind quoting you in one of my in-house trainings.. would be very beneficial to those who are “too quiet” to complain… keep up the great work!

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Greg Sinton

I retired from the federal government before Trump became my boss and appointed a totally inappropriate leader for the Department I was employed by. At least it was not the EPA…that must be incredibly demoralizing to have a leader that is aggressively opposed to the mission of the agency. I don’t know how those people can force themselves to go to work in the morning.

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Greg Sinton

Obviously retiring is not an option for everyone, but I think if a leader is totally opposed to the mission of your organization it might be best to try to find a new organization to be a part of unless you think you have enough power in the existing organization to counteract the poor leader.

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Profile Photo Lauren Girardin

When faced with an unpredictable leader, each person must make their own choice to stay at their organization or leave for a new opportunity (or retire). People may stay because they believe they will able to more effectively protect their mission from within their organization than they would be if they had to watch changes happen from outside.

Of course, we shouldn’t judge anyone who stays or goes since there are many things that affect their decision, like career goals and the need for dependable income and benefits.

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Joyce LeFlore

It’s great to know there are plenty of options to consider for these type of daily issues and concerns. I feel more power in knowing that something can actually be done in the workplace.

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Profile Photo Lauren Girardin

A feeling of powerless can be disheartening. But it’s rare to be truly and completely powerless. I hope this article shows people ways they can individually and collectively exercise power at their organization. Thank you for sharing that this advice has helped you, Joyce.

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