What To Do When Your Boss Gets Distracted By A Shiny New Idea - image of a hand attempting to block the sun's glare

What To Do When Your Boss Gets Distracted By A Shiny New Idea

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

You’ve spent hours in meetings hammering out the strategy, having tough conversations about resources and capacity, and making decisions about priorities. Finally, everyone is aligned and you have a roadmap to move forward that involves focusing on certain products, devoting limited resources to high-priority projects, putting lower-priority efforts on the back burner, and making a few key hires. You communicate the plan to your team and begin to execute.

And then, just days later, your boss does one or more of the following:

  • calls a meeting to discuss a cool new technology that is nowhere in your priorities
  • proposes a partnership deal in an area that you just decided to “back-burner”
  • asks you to interview someone they just met for a potential role that’s not on the hiring plan

Your first (internal) reaction is, “What the…??!” You are confused and alarmed about what this means for company strategy and for your team. What about the priorities that you all just agreed to? The whole point of the strategy was to align on a narrow set of priorities crucial for success. You’re worried about mission creep and that your team will wind up (again) spread too thin and unable to deliver well on anything. Your worry quickly turns to fury.

Very likely, this is not the first time you are having this experience with this leader—it’s a pattern that has played out multiple times. In fact, it happens in many organizations where I coach. It is just one expression of the tension between “visionary leaders,” who are excited by new ideas and future possibilities, and operational leaders, who are focused on delivery and are connected to the people and resources on the ground. But every time it happens, you panic as you try to figure out how to respond. If your boss (or other key stakeholder) has a tendency to get excited about a new, exciting idea (sometimes called “Shiny Object Syndrome”) you may feel whip-sawed by changing direction. How to cope?

  • Manage your own emotions. Start by noticing your reaction. It can be helpful to name your emotion, which has been shown to shift your brain activity from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex and allow you to reflect rather than react. Are you alarmed? Annoyed, even furious? What is triggering the feeling? Often, underneath anger is a more vulnerable emotion, like fear. Fear of loss of control, protectiveness of your team. Your instinct may be to slam on the brakes. Instead, take a breath and engage constructively.
  • Ask questionsCuriosity is a great antidote to fear, and it helps to slow things down. Ask your boss what is behind their idea and what they hope to achieve. Cultivate and demonstrate openness to discussion and understanding, even if you remain skeptical. Use this inquiry as an opportunity to learn—about the idea itself, and about your boss’s hopes and fears. Frequently, you will find that what you feared was a mandate is actually just an exploration.
  • Find common ground. Instead of listening to prove your boss wrong, listen for places of agreement and validate their idea where you can. Maybe the whiz-bang technology has potential in the future; perhaps the interviewee is very talented and might serve as a consultant on a project; maybe the partnership deal is not a good fit, but there is another partnership that would be worth pursuing. This strategy will help you connect and get into a joint solving mindset rather than antagonism.
  • Appeal to shared principles and values. Refocus your boss on higher level goals and inquire how the proposed idea relates to the company’s North Star. Identify key priorities and name the trade-offs that would be required if the company pursued the idea in the near-term. Help them understand the real stakes at play.
  • Embrace the positive. Take a step back and consider how you benefit from your boss’s openness to new ideas. Look for opportunities to loosen your grip and lean into the creative tension between your “practical shoes” and your boss’s “head in the clouds” and embrace the opportunity to stretch, grow and innovate.
  • Talk to your boss. Have you had a similar experience before? If so, it can be helpful to discuss the dynamic with your boss after the situation has been resolved. Use neutral, factual language to describe your observations (no blaming) and share what the subjective experience is like for you (here it can be helpful to describe the emotional impact). Does your boss see the pattern as well? Help them understand that being “disruptive”—highly prized as an entrepreneur— can have serious costs for their own teams. Consider whether there other instances when you fall into roles, and how do those roles serve or hinder performance? Together, you can work to develop some tools for how to handle it next time. And yes, there will be a next time…

Work relationships are like marriages and other intimate relationships.They tend to fall into behavior patterns: one spouse is spontaneous and up for anything, while the other prefers to have a plan and stick to it; one frets about money, while the other likes to splurge. These preferences predictably come into conflict. According to renowned psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, 69% of marital conflicts are “unsolvable”—they are based on personality traits or deep-seated issues and will continually crop up throughout the relationship. In functional, stable marriages, the partners learn how to manage these conflicts and generate enough positive energy in the partnership to thrive. When they are dysfunctional, the partners trigger each other’s fears and anger and bring out each other’s worst—defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling and contempt. Many such marriages, especially those were contempt is present, end in divorce.