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Better Mondays - Chapter Five
Your Boss, The Care and Feeding Thereof
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Chapter Five - Your Boss, The Care and Feeding Thereof
In the corporate world, there’s not a more critical professional relationship than the one you’ll have with your boss. Your immediate supervisor can and will make or break your career. You need his or her approval to receive promotions and raises. No other recommendation will carry as much weight.
For the most part, bosses tend to reflect the company’s internal values. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in a managerial position. Yes, there are exceptions. Advancement resulting from cronyism and personal relationships is a fact of life. But in general, your boss will reflect a true copy of the company’s “big picture,” especially when it comes to policy and procedure, and the degree of flexibility you’ll have with both.
Have a conflict with your manager’s value system? First, determine if it’s a personal issue. Does he say or do things that reflect gender bias or discrimination? Are his actions dishonest, deceitful, or ethically flawed? Or is he merely parroting the company’s directives and rhetoric? Separate the leader from the system, and decide which one is the real source of the problem.
Bosses come and go, but the core tenets of the company are a perpetual watermark on every expression of its identity. If you find your conflict is with the fundamental principles carved into the bedrock of the organization, you may need to re-evaluate your career future with that company. (To kick it up a notch, if you find you have a constant dislike or conflict will all of your bosses, you may not be cut out to be an employee.)
Your first boss can be a valued asset as well as a challenging taskmaster. I’ve talked with plenty of new hires who expected special consideration in the form of extra patience or even forgiveness from the manager who hired them. And while these “invested” managers can be an excellent source of insight and advice, their expectations for your success will take priority over protecting you with extensions of tolerance or clemency.
A supervisor who had a say in hiring you—or actually made the hiring decision—is under pressure to prove to her superiors she made the right choice. And she will want you to prove her correct as quickly as possible.
From the perspective of senior management, your success is a reflection of your manager’s skill and experience in transforming you from a raw trainee into a profitable asset. Every time you screw up or fall short of expected performance goals, or upset or disappoint another employee or customer with inappropriate behavior, someone is silently asking, “Who hired this person?”
Your boss will want to see any personal deficiencies corrected very quickly. The longer you remain with the company as a non-productive employee, the longer a supervisor is reminded that your inadequacies are a reflection of her management skills. You quickly become an on-going embarrassment—a waste of company money and someone who isn’t helping to advance their manager’s career. If you have difficulty fitting into the organization, or meeting production goals, or exhibiting the traits and characteristics associated with a “good employee,” your manager is often the first to issue the ultimatum that eventually results in termination.
Get to know your Boss – really well. The more you know about your supervisor, the more you can influence his thinking. The best approach is to be subtle and non-intrusive. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
What are your supervisor’s likes and dislikes?
What’s his favorite food or restaurant (so you can suggest it the next time you go to lunch together)?
Does he attend church? Where? If his actions and behaviors are influenced by adherence to religious principles, how might that affect his expectations about you?
How long has he been married? Learn his spouse’s name. Is he or she a homemaker? Or do they work outside the home? How about the kids? Their names, genders, ages, grades in school, and anything else your boss mentions about them should be committed to memory.
Find about his hobbies. Does he like sports? Does he attend local events and games? Do his kids play on the school team or in a league?
What about music? Does he have background music playing in his office? Or does it keep it quiet? Does he play an instrument?
Finally, find out what pisses him off and don’t do that. Everyone has hot buttons. Avoid pushing them, and you’ll come across as considerate and thoughtful.
There are always a few employees who think it’s a show of strength or independence to argue or “raise hell with the boss.” It’s a mistake. Put yourself in his position and ask yourself how long you would be willing to put up with someone’s intentional arrogance when you have a full schedule of responsibilities to complete.
Supervisors look for—and reward—subordinates who make their job easier, who are pleasant to be around, and offer their cooperation and support. If you get the reputation for being a pain in the ass, your future will be a dark one.
These suggestions are just the basics, but it’s a start in creating a big-picture of your supervisor’s personality, their life priorities, and most importantly, how these may influence their professional decisions.
Do an equal amount of research on your bosses’ supervisor. Although you may not have the same access or opportunity for face to face communication, you need to make sure the person with next level authority knows who you are and has a favorable impression of you. Her approval of your boss’s recommendation for raises and promotions will be important, if not absolutely necessary. While it may take longer to acquire the same information about regional or national managers, it’s vital to your career if your goal is to build your image as a fast-track professional with talents and abilities above and beyond your current position.
Yes, loyalty counts! I’m amazed at the number of people who go behind their supervisor’s back to try to have them replaced due to supposed or imagined incompetence, or because they believe they were treated in an inappropriate or unjustified manner, then end up surprised to find out they’ve committed professional suicide.
Never attempt to undermine your supervisor. The company will not allow it. Your boss is empowered to direct and manage her subordinates, and her superiors will not weaken her authority with wavering or inconsistent validation. To do so would compromise her effectiveness as a manager. Management bestowed your boss with the final decision over your continuing relationship with the company, and whatever your boss decides, the company will support and defend.
While you may personally disagree with your supervisor on policy or procedures, you must find a way to support her decisions and to implement her directions without showing any signs of being disgruntled, resentful, or disappointed.
Above all, avoid having arguments with your boss. In the end, you will lose. Unless it’s necessary to protect yourself professionally, ethically, or even physically, let your boss have their way.
“But wait!” You say. “What if he’s doing something illegal?”
Here’s the big question: Are you sure his activities are against the law? Do you have irrefutable evidence that conclusively identifies him as the perpetrator? Keep in mind there’s a big difference between doing something illegal and practicing situational ethics.
If your boss is operating within the gray zone, and you rat him out, how will it affect your status with the company? A subordinate who challenges a superior’s integrity rarely lasts to see another work anniversary. Even worse, there’s always the possibility you could be considered complicit in the activity and have the blame shifted to you! Don’t underestimate the lengths an organization will go to protect one of their own, especially someone who is a favored son or is owed special consideration from upper management.
Be visible to the boss, but not in her face. The number of opportunities you’ll have to converse with your supervisor can vary from an everyday occurrence to once in a blue moon, depending on where she’s located. Face-to-face contact may also be determined (limited) by management style, personality, or work schedule. For example, your boss may be more likely to pick up the phone to chat with you about a recently submitted report, even though she’s sitting in her office just two doors away.
Despite your supervisor’s idiosyncrasies, take advantage of all private meetings. How many meetings? How often? How long?
I’ve heard management gurus suggest as often as once a week. However, a lot of middle managers are so overloaded with internal paperwork that your request for a weekly meeting could make you a pain in the ass—just the opposite of what you want to accomplish.
Unless your job responsibility requires more frequent face-to-face meetings with your supervisor, shoot for every two weeks. Take cues from your boss’s attitude and degree of focus to know when to end the meeting. In general, unless you have something to discuss of biblical proportions, keep the meeting short. Fifteen minutes is usually enough to cover what’s going on in your circle of influence. Use the time to update your boss on projects you’re working on, trends you’ve identified, to ask any questions about your performance and promotion opportunities (don’t over-do this), and to complement other employees who’ve helped you or have done something that needs to be acknowledged.
THINK before you speak, then speak without saying, “I think.” When your supervisor asks for your opinion, take a moment before answering. If possible, determine the source of the question. Is the information important to her personally, or will it be passed to her superior? Why is your input important? Are you being quizzed to determine your progress on an assigned project?
If it concerns company policy, a sales function, or a marketing promotion, dazzle her with suggestions of how you plan to implement the new strategies or procedures. And always avoid prefacing your answer with the words, “I think.” It reduces the listener’s confidence in your answer because you’ve expressed an opinion, inferring the source of the information (you!) may not be credible or reliable.
If you can’t provide an immediate answer to a question, buy some time. Say you’ve got some notes, data, or feedback on your computer you’d like to retrieve. Or, you saw an email come in just before the meeting that might have the information you’ve been waiting on. Then take a few minutes to do some research. If there’s a predominant opinion already established within the management hierarchy, and your support of the same view doesn’t disadvantage your job or compensation, then you’ve got your answer.
If a quick round of research doesn’t provide you with a response or an opinion you can intelligently promote and defend, return to your boss with this question: “Before we begin, have you had any new thoughts on the situation?” That’s all you say. Don’t add anything. Then let your supervisor speak. In the few minutes you were gone, his mind has drifted to other things, and it’s doubtful he’ll think your question is just a ruse to prompt him to disclose his personal opinion. Most of the time, he’ll tell you what he thinks and why. Then you can tailor your answer accordingly.
Before we go any further, I want to make it clear I’m not suggesting you need to be a “Yes Man,” always responding with the politically correct and diplomatic answer. However, understand this: Communication with your superiors, especially in face-to-face discussions, should be intentionally structured as respectful, professional exchanges in which you exhibit massive doses of self-control.
If you do have verifiable, third-party information contrary to the trending attitude of the company or that contradicts data and information used to justify a management decision, consider the effect your disclosure will have on you and your future. Even when your information is accurate, you could receive a heavy dose of condemnation for bursting the ill-conceived bubble of some misinformed but popular and well-established division head.
Remember, they do shoot the messenger, so decide if implicating yourself is the best strategy.
There’s another reason to carefully consider revealing any opposing or conflicting information to your manager. If your input criticizes a company plan or program, it can easily be interpreted as an excuse, a reflection of your lack of ability to achieve the results the company wanted. Was the program flawed—or did you fail to perform?
Your commitment and skill in implementation will always be questioned before the viability of the plan or process. So be very careful when expressing a negative opinion about a company campaign or promotion.
If you’re tempted to fault the plan because you are struggling to achieve an acceptable level of results, explain that your situation is unique because of customer idiosyncrasies, third-party influences, or timing issues, and you’re in the process of working through these temporary challenges. You can bet that if you’re experiencing negative feedback or outcomes, so are others. Moreover, some of them will be very vocal about it. If a program is truly faulty or ineffective, management will eventually pull the plug.
Keep your conversations with supervisors about you and your work. Avoid volunteering negative information about co-workers and their activities—both on and off the job. The adage that advises, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything,” is an excellent guideline. Repeating rumor and innuendo about others reflects poorly on your character and professionalism. Even more important, if you acquire the reputation of someone who spills their guts to the boss, you’ll lose the respect of your co-workers.
What if the boss asks for private feedback about a co-worker? Yes, this happens. It can come in the form of an off-handed question or after your supervisor provides a detailed disclosure of the issue. And it means one of three things: Your manager is taking you into his confidence and wants to know what you think about another employee. Or, there’s a “situation” that involves you and another person—whether you know it or not—and he wants to hear your side of the story.
The last alternative typically has to do with a possible promotion, especially if you’re competing with another individual for the position. In this situation, questions about a co-worker could be designed to see which of you would make the better supervisor, particularly if one of you is going to end up working for the other.
Regardless of what you believe motivates your supervisor’s request for your opinion about another employee, use the following strategy to formulate your answers:
Keep your responses general and positive. Unless you have supervisory responsibility for the co-worker, keep your comments brief and positive. There’s never any reason to go into detail about another employee’s personal or professional life behind their back. If a pejorative question is asked about a co-worker's job performance, your response should be, “Not that I’m aware of,” or “I wasn’t aware of that.”
Be wary of a situation that can put you squarely in the hot seat: On occasion, you may be asked about a situation or activity that is incriminating to a co-worker or implies their intentions or actions are suspect. If this happens, your answer should always begin—“I’ve never heard or seen him say or do anything like that.” If that’s an impossible position to take (because the boss knows for a fact you were aware of what your co-worker was doing), then suggest you didn’t think it was your place to bring it up since you had the impression the activity was approved, authorized, or being monitored by management.
In these kinds of situations, saying less is always the best approach, until you know exactly what’s going on, and how much management already knows.
Every Boss Has a Personal Management Style.
Management style (sometimes called a theme) is a trendy topic and is a popular subject for in-house seminars. Most of these programs suggest replacing a singular communication style with a wider range of methods and techniques to suit the situation or employee. Some of the more common styles are The Director, The Authoritarian, The Coach, and so on. In theory, using multiple management styles will increase a manager’s effectiveness, regardless of the differences in personalities between supervisor and subordinate.
Using this form of “flex-management” effectively requires a manager to be constantly aware of what’s going on around them, make adjustments based on the intended recipient of their message, and obtain accurate feedback to ensure their ideas and thoughts are accurately interpreted.
Frankly, few people—whether they have management responsibility or not—have the behavioral flexibility to make a seamless transition from one communication style to another. In reality, most managers have an innate management style based on their personality, intelligence, and people skills. And good or bad, it’s how they communicate. Although the following categories are generalizations, it’s surprising how many subordinates often come to recognize one of these styles as the predictable process of interacting with their boss:
The Questioning Manager. This boss always answers your question with one of his own. If you ask him which product is the better choice for a particular application, he’ll answer, “What do you think is the better choice? Why don’t you spend more time looking over the differences between the two options and see if there’s a clear preference?”
Getting a commitment out of a questioning manager is like pulling teeth. Sometimes this style of management is described as an attempt to “soft” delegate, to get subordinates more involved in the process. There’s also the possibility you’ve got someone who’s uncomfortable making a decision.
To obtain a definitive answer from this kind of individual, try providing them with a series of logical steps that motivates them to arrive at the conclusion you need. For example, present the choices under consideration, describe the advantages and disadvantages of each, then make a strong recommendation—if you can.
If you can’t make a recommendation because you really don’t know the best choice, then you’re either missing information about the core problem, you’re unfamiliar with the relevant details of the situation or affected parties, or it doesn’t matter what you decide because the outcome won’t make that much difference in the long run. Conversely, if the decision is a foregone conclusion, and your manager’s approval is more of an administrative “rubber-stamp,” present it that way. “We’re ready to implement this, and I just need your signature.”
The Waiting/Delaying/Postponing Manager. This manager’s favorite mantra is, “I’d rather be right than prompt.” Translation: He’s afraid of being wrong.
Risk is not something a delaying manager wants to calculate, measure, or manage, and he’s far more comfortable operating in hindsight than at the forefront. As a result, he seldom gains the advantage of being the first to respond to new opportunities—which, unfortunately, customers may interpret as disinterest.
Your best approach with this kind of manager is similar to the questioning supervisor: Break down your request into phases or steps. Make each step easily explainable in the following terms: (1) Benefits to be gained, (2) Expenses and costs, (3) Estimated return on investment, and (4) Opportunity cost. Tell him you want to take the first step, but that’s as far as you want to go until you have obtained positive feedback that you’re on the right track, and moving forward makes sense.
Be sure to eliminate all unknown risks from your presentation. Even when they can be evaluated objectively from the three perspectives—worse case, best case, and most likely result—admitting your proposal contains unknown risks will likely generate a response similar to, “Let’s hold off on this one until we have a better handle on the situation.”
The Re-scheduler. Ask this guy about an unexpected customer meeting or some other unscheduled event, and you’re likely to hear, “But that wasn’t on the schedule today,” or “I didn’t realize you would need an answer this soon. You should have brought this to me earlier.”
This manager runs his life by day-planner. He couldn’t make a spontaneous decision if he had to. Taking him to a restaurant that’s different than his regular lunch place can leave him disoriented and confused.
The only way to get something done with this kind of supervisor is to put it on his schedule first. If you suddenly need time with him, ask him if he could pencil you in for fifteen minutes that same afternoon, assuring him it’s a simple matter that will just take a moment to resolve. The more time you can put between your request and your face-to-face meeting, the more comfortable your manager will be in listening to what you have to say.
You may find it beneficial to schedule a series of mini-meetings throughout the week. This will provide you with pre-arranged time slots to discuss anything that requires his input. If there’s nothing urgent when the next meeting rolls around, don’t cancel. Instead, review an existing project or situation, then confirm how valuable these brief meetings have been in improving your response time to customers.
The “Not Interested” Manager. If you’re suggesting a new system, methodology, or process, you might as well be talking to the cleaning staff. This manager is not interested in changing anything unless it comes from above. He expects you to do your job under the existing programs and policies, without finding fault or suggesting improvement. These guys and gals are the metaphorical equivalent of the round peg in the round hole and it couldn’t be a more perfect fit. Show them resistance, and you’ll leave the room with “Boat-Rocker” stamped on your forehead.
Admittedly, this is a tough one. Fortunately, these types are not without an ego. A not interested manager will often consider making a change to the status quo when your suggestion results in accolades for his management skill. The key is using subtle praise to buy more influence. Try increasing your leverage by complimenting him in front of his supervisor. Mention how stable, reliable, and dependable he is. Then add how you appreciate those attributes in someone you work for.
Yes, this kind of brown-nosing can buy you extra consideration, but even when the timing is perfect, always present your request with “negative caution.”
Here’s an example of some non-threatening rhetoric that neutralizes your personal interest in the subject: “I’ve been thinking about an alternative way of recording test data from the G-testing we’re doing on those new hard-drives. But the more I consider it, the less I’m sure it’s even worth discussing. If you’d like, I can run the idea past you. It might be a complete waste of time, but I’d appreciate your input.”
Avoid presenting your request in terms of what it will do for you. You’ll likely get an automatic turn down. Try saying something like, “I noticed how much paper we were using in copying all those redundant files. I wondered if the company could save a few dollars by printing only what we need from the digital archives. On the flip side, I know there may be other reasons for creating paper copies that I’m not aware of, so I wanted to get your opinion.” The fact that you’re the one who has to make sure those copies are collated, cross-checked, and filed must not enter into the picture.
The Unpredictable Manager. This guy likes to impress others by leaving no doubt that he’s the boss. One of my distributor managers liked to brag he “managed like a bull in a china shop.” He prided himself on giving his subordinates as much authority and flexibility as they showed themselves capable of handling, but when he was asked for help or to offer his opinion, he made sure he “got in there and shook things up.” He wanted to leave the clear impression he was in charge, and if necessary, would institute silly or unnecessary procedures, just to flex his muscles.
The fact that his reactions were so unpredictable—regardless of what was at stake—motivated his salespeople to avoid asking for his involvement under any circumstances. The thought of their boss communicating directly with customers drained the color from their faces. The same fear was prevalent in the staff as well, and they quickly learned to design their own processes and systems for handling paperwork, correspondence, and other administrative tasks—without asking for input from the boss.
The result? The manager was rarely involved in the day-to-day activities of the business. I don’t know if that was his ultimate intention, but it did free up a lot of time to enjoy two-hour lunches and a game of golf twice a week.
Your only defense with a boss like this is to assume a low profile and stay out of his way. These kinds of people typically have huge egos and will go to any length to demonstrate their authority.
Make it a point to avoid disagreements or stating an opposing point of view. If necessary, placate them by agreeing with them in principle, then do what’s necessary to get your job done. As far as receiving promotions from an “unpredictable,” it will usually help your relationship if you credit him for his management skill and leadership, letting him know it’s the very thing that “keeps you on top of your game.”
These are just a few of the many management styles commonly identified by personality type or a preferred method of communication. Remember, these are only generalizations. Each manager’s style is influenced by their personal agenda, insecurities, and ego. And while some will display a consistent approach to handling their assigned responsibilities, others may pride themselves on their unpredictability.
Thanks for reading,
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.