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Getting Along with the Boss: Build the Relationship at Work That Matters Most to Your Career

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Show me someone who has ever held a job, and I'll show you someone who's hated his boss. Call it karma, feng shui, or just the way of the world, but everyone seems to have had a boss they've disliked. Really disliked. Even bosses have hated their bosses.

Why the hate? For starters, even the little things can get in the way of love. I, for one, find it hard to love a boss who clips his toenails in his office, as was the case with my third boss. And you can call me crazy, but I still harbor the slightest bit of ill will for the supervisor who returned a draft of a memo I had been working on with ''I don’t get this'' written in large, red letters across the top.

Despite these cruel injustices, it doesn’t serve me — or you, dear reader — to sit around, be cranky, and stew in our own juices. Hopefully, you’re working with a manager or supervisor who is enlightened and a joy to be around, but maybe your boss is considerably less than perfect. Perhaps you don’t have a boss yet, but want to make sure you start off on the right foot when you do get one. Whatever the case, your relationship with your boss is going to be one of the most important work relationships you’ll have, and you’ll want to do everything you can to make it work. That doesn’t mean you two have to be best friends, but like it or not, your boss holds the keys to your career, at least for the time being. Unless you want to ride shotgun for the rest of the way, you’re going to want to figure out how to love the one you’re with.

The Micromanager

How to Spot Him: It’s not tough. He’s the guy breathing down your neck, looking over your shoulder, and calling you every three minutes to check on how things are progressing with the report you’re working on. Micromanagers have a hard time giving up control and like to keep you on a very short leash. Plus, they drive you completely nuts.

How to Manage the Micromanager: Consider his perspective — as your manager, his butt is on the line with everything you do. When you screw up, it’s more work for him, and he isn’t sure he can trust you to get things right. Perhaps he was burned in the past by a former employee and just isn’t willing to take chances on letting you work solo. Or, maybe he’s just a control freak who won’t let go, or thinks nobody can do the job but him.

Try This: Think of your micromanager as a strict, overprotective mom who worries about everything, and who feels much better when she knows exactly what is going on at all times. Send daily updates, weekly reports, detailed voice mails — whatever it takes to keep her very, very informed. If you smell the faintest whiff of a problem in the air, let your micromanager know immediately. As Equity Methods CEO David Roberts (who is certainly not a micromanager) puts it: ''Never let a bump in the road become a pothole. Keep me informed.''

If you want your micromanager to give you more independence, start with something small to test the waters. Show the micromanager the benefits of giving you some space and managing you less — for instance, they can save time, gain productivity, and allow you to strengthen your skills and abilities in the process. And remember, trust is earned. Don’t expect your boss to let you handle the presentation or the proposal on your own for a while. No boss, no matter how relaxed, is handing over the keys to the Porsche until he’s darn sure that you can really drive.

The Absentee Boss

How to Spot Her: Good luck. If you happen to catch a glimpse of her in the office, she’s either running out the door, to a meeting, or is buried in a conference call. You see her so seldom, you hardly remember what she looks like. Often, the Absentee Boss leaves you wondering what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to get it done.

Manage the Absentee Boss: Why are some bosses so hard to get a hold of? For the absentee boss, her disappearing act might be explained by the fact that she’s being pulled in too many directions and doesn’t have time for you right now. Or, let’s face it, some managers simply don’t want the responsibilities that come with managing someone, and it could be that she prefers handling the tasks of her job rather than managing you. Whatever the reason, it’s of little comfort to those of us who would actually like to see our bosses once in a while, if only so they can see all of the great work we’re actually doing.

Try This: First, try like heck to get your boss to agree to a weekly meeting. Even if he’ll only give you five minutes, force him to put something on his calendar each and every week (or more) that is exclusively time for you. Don’t let him off the hook here — make sure you get a regular standing ''date'' with him so that even if he’s pulling a disappearing act the rest of the week, you know you’ll have your regularly scheduled meeting to ask questions, get him to sign off on stuff, etc. Once you’ve got your meeting, run it like a tight ship — be extremely prepared and keep your points short, sweet, and concise. If you aren’t prepared or waste time, it will be that much harder for you to get his attention the next time you need it.

The Slave Driver

How to Spot Him: Easy — he’s the boss who likes to schedule meetings on a Saturday afternoon, who wants to review your memo at 7:00 am on a Monday morning, and who doesn’t seem to bat an eye about calling you on your vacation to discuss an upcoming project. Hard-working? Sure, but the Slave Driver takes it to a scary new level, where it seems there is little that matters more to him than work — and you’re expected to follow suit.

Manage the Slave Driver: Managing the Slave Driver is tricky — after all, if he is your boss, you can’t very well say no to the early meetings, the Saturday work sessions, or anything else for that matter, can you? The answer, as it turns out, is…maybe.

How can you know for sure? Start by taking a look around the office: Do you work in a company that celebrates a ''Type A personality'' kind of culture? Have you noticed that many of your colleagues work weekends, come in early, or stay late? If that’s the case, accept the fact that you’re part of a company or industry where working long hours is par for the course and your Slave Driver boss is simply one of many around the office. On the other hand, if you and your boss are usually the only ones burning the midnight oil, you may have some room to negotiate.

Try this: If you’ve truly got a Slave Driver on your hands, you owe it to yourself to take a stand. Numerous studies of workplace life and stress management show how working around the clock results in less productivity, higher rates of absenteeism and illness, and, ultimately, burnout on the job. The bottom line: Your mind, body, and spirit need breaks from time to time. Don’t feel guilty about taking them.

That said, you must tread very, very carefully when telling your boss no in any way, shape, or form. Even if your boss is being unreasonable, you’re still the new kid on the block, and the last thing you want to do is gain the reputation of being unreliable, lazy, or incapable of holding up your end of things.

In the Final Analysis

If there’s one thing to remember when it comes to your boss, it’s that it’s up to you to make the most of your situation, even if your boss is Cruella DeVille in disguise. No matter how lousy your boss is (and I sincerely hope he or she isn’t too bad), it isn’t an excuse for being lousy on the job. Instead, remember that bosses come and go throughout a career, and this is simply a small bump in the road. When the boss chips are down, resolve to focus more than ever on results and deliverables, and do the good work you were hired to do. And if it doesn’t work out perfectly — or at all — don’t worry too much. You’ve probably learned a few things along the way (even if it’s what not to do as a boss!) and you’re better armed, better prepared, and better able to handle the next bad boss that comes along.

About the Author

Elizabeth Freedman, MBA, is an award-winning speaker and business columnist and is the author of Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace Without Hanging Yourself and The MBA Student's Job-Seeking Bible. She was a 2005 finalist for College Speaker of the Year, an honor awarded by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities, and runs a Boston-based communications and career development firm that helps new professionals look sharp, sound smart, and succeed on the job. Clients include the Gillette Company, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Thomson Corporation. For more information about the author, please visit
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