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Relationship with the Boss

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Meet your boss's needs by understanding his or her motivations, habits, and work styles.

What do bosses do to their subordinates? No one says you, the lowly employee, can't be proactive and manage the relationship upward and achieve remarkable results, notably a better environment yielding excellent work.

Battalions of management consultants have become rich by selling the concept of "managing your boss." Prestigious organizations like the American Management Association regularly stage conferences and seminars, not to mention peddling books, brochures, and audio-cassettes on the subject. Process all the information on the subject and you'll discover the nucleus of upward management which, according to Joe Weintraub, a professor of management at Rabson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, simply involves "understanding your boss's world." Weintraub has lectured and written extensively on the boss-employee relationship. Once you understand your boss's world, you'll be better able to manage the conflicting relationship you have with this person.

The conflict, as you probably guessed, is more of a problem for you than it is for your boss. Your problems with your boss keep you up nights while he or she is probably sleeping like a baby. You're the one who's bent out of shape over the relationship. Despite whatever brilliant rationalizations you can conjure, you are the victim. Your boss may be trying to figure out what to do with you, but you're not the center of his or her universe. Wouldn't she be surprised to discover that most of your waking hours are consumed by your relationship? You can assume that your boss is not that concerned about making the relationship better. If you handed in your resignation today, your boss wouldn't be shattered. She'd gripe about the tedium and headache of interviewing and choosing your replacement, but I her appetite wouldn't be affected.

If you intend to manage the relationship, the burden is on you. It's not about trying to change your boss by confrontation. Instead, it's about finding out what has to be done to improve the relationship. "Many people have a hard time accepting this," says Weintraub. "Understand the ground rules and accept the fact that you're not playing on a level playing field."

But you can crawl into your boss's head to better understand his or her world.


What does understanding your boss's world mean?

"I understand my boss," you rail. "All she cares about is making us kill ourselves so the department makes its sales quota and she comes off looking like a saint. She doesn't give a damn about us." This is an all-too-common reaction spoken like a true narcissist. I hate to shatter icons, but you're a cog in the wheel, a piece of machinery in the human assembly line-nothing more. But if you perform poorly, you'll stand out from the crowd with the spotlight on you. Now you're a problem that has to be addressed. Step away from the situation and you'll see that this picture is totally absurd. The reality is that you areonly a small detail in your boss's life. If you intend to manage the relationship, you're going to have to start the process by thinking objectively. That's the crucial first --Okay, So I'll Manage My Boss--step in the assessment process. But it's easier said than done. Seeing your boss's world is going to take hard work. Most bosses are terrible communicators who seldom telegraph their feelings. They keep to themselves and truly believe that they ought to maintain a discreet distance from their employees. It is only the newer highly educated generation of bosses who have been primed by industrial psychologists and have imbibed the theories of Peter Drucker and Tom Peters about bridging the boss-worker communication gap.

Traditional bosses, on the other hand, compare their roles to that of the captain of a ship. They feel they must be aloof, distant, and yes, superior to their subordinates. Accompanying that lofty role is loneliness and isolation. Like the ship's captain, they can't socialize or, heaven forbid, bare their soul to their staff. Traditional bosses believe they shouldn't get too close to someone who they may have to fire some day. In other words, they'll be better able to do their jobs if they keep their emotions in check. It sounds overly dramatic, yet there is a compelling element of truth to this kind of thinking.

Put it all together and it's easy to understand why we know so little about our bosses. Amid all the secrecy and aloofness, there lies the telling question: What makes my boss tick? Answer that $64,000 question and you've grasped the concept of upward management.

Bad situations don't mend themselves; they only get worse! Now you have a better handle on the obstacle before you. If you agree to accept this mission, you must cross this uncharted ocean. Once you understand your boss's role, you'll be able to manage the relationship. But it's not going to happen overnight. It will take time, patience, and intensive information gathering. Despite all that has been written on the subject, most people never get past the buzzwords to understand that there is real value in managing your boss. Sadly, most of us think a bad situation will mysteriously mend itself. The thinking goes something like, "Once Norma sees how capable I am, she'll get off my back and appreciate my talents." Only in your dreams will that happen.

Somehow, we make ourselves believe we have been wronged by a cruel system. We want to believe that our demented bosses will see the light of day and say, "Lucretia, I want to apologize for my behavior over the last 6 years. The incredible work you did on the last project finally opened my eyes. It demonstrated hard work, insight, commitment, and brilliant thinking. I never realized you had such an extraordinary mind. I don't know what I have been thinking all these years. It may be late in coming, but I have to say I feel very lucky to have you on board."

If you think your boss is going to call you into his office, close the door, and mouth some variation of the above, you probably also think you're going to win the lottery. That's how remote the chances are.

Unless fate or divine intervention mysteriously alters your course for the better, bad situations only get worse. Now that I've splashed you in the face with a dose of sobering reality, let's get real and find out all we can about our boss. Here's how you do it.

The secrets of information gathering

Have you given thought to how you're going to gather information about your boss? Believe it or not, the information-gathering process is actually fun. Most of your information will come simply from observing this person by stepping back and emotionally disengaging yourself from the situation.

Rather than feeling persecuted and obsessing about how your boss is going to torture you next, simply hang back, listen, and observe.

Shifting your Attitude

Instead of casting yourself as a lead player in this tragedy of wills, take yourself out of the drama and become an impartial critic in the audience. It is a nonthreatening role without an agenda. You'll be pleasantly shocked at what you learn. Interaction with your boss will cease to be painful. The prospect of attending meetings will no longer trigger a cold sweat. In time, you'll even look forward to them.

You have also become a student. Your subject --Your boss

Beyond observing, don't hesitate to ask questions. But be careful who you question. You don't want to seem like a snoop or a whistle-blower. Warning: Only approach people you trust. Even then, don't feel compelled to explain what you're doing. The less said the better. The safest response is, "I'm just trying to get a handle on Jim so I can relate to him better."

That's not a lie either. You'll accomplish little by telling anyone that your goal is to manage your boss. No matter how much you explain, people will think you've gone off the deep end. "You're what? I had no idea Jim has gotten to you this bad." Then they'll walk away convinced you've suffered a nervous breakdown.

The best people to approach are colleagues and lower-level supervisors who work with your boss. An incredible information source--if he or she talks to you and can be trusted--is your boss's secretary or assistant. Warning: Be careful; approach with caution. Many secretaries who've worked closely with their bosses for several years are loyal to a fault. Some secretaries would kill for their boss. Some are closer to them than they are to their spouses.

It comes down to personal chemistry. If you feel you can ask questions in an inoffensive nonthreatening way, by all means try. But if you have the slightest doubt, hesitate from proceeding. You could be hammering the nails into your own coffin. Even though your motives are noble and constructive, if this person smells skullduggery of any kind, your boss will learn of it. It's only a question of time before you're filing for unemployment insurance.

Safe Sources

Marvelous-and safe-information sources, if you can find them, are former employees. Since they're out of the fray, they're likely to provide startling revelations.

In the process of observing, get answers to the following questions:

These only seem like obvious or insulting questions. Several people were asked if they could explain their bosses' jobs. All they could provide were threadbare job descriptions. An electrical engineer employed by a Fortune 500 computer hard drive manufacturer who's been grappling with his boss for 5 years said: "My boss heads a microprocessor design unit made up of five computer engineers and five electrical engineers. He sets the workloads and project scope and makes sure the work gets done."

It sounds impressive, but it doesn't say a heck of a lot. So some obvious questions were asked: How does he spend his day? What are his personal responsibilities? How does he supervise? Does he walk around and make sure everyone's working? Does he set daily quotas? How does he evaluate work? How does he handle problems or delays? Whom does he report to? The engineer was shocked that he could barely provide answers to these questions.

It was pretty much the same story with a junior buyer of children's outerwear employed by a major department store chain. When asked to describe her boss's job, she said: "She supervises all the buying of all children's outerwear, ages 3 through 12. She monitors trends, visits manufacturers, sets budgets, and helps set retail prices." Her answer triggered other questions: What does "monitoring trends" mean? Does she sit in her office reading fashion magazines? How much time is spent traveling or visiting manufacturers? Many buyers spend as much as 50 percent of their time traveling. When she's away, how does she supervise the work? When she's in the office, how does she supervise subordinates? Whom does she report to and how does she fit into the chain of command?

Other people interviewed also revealed a similar lack of knowledge about their bosses' jobs. The obvious conclusion is that most of us are so immersed in our jobs and problems that we seldom step back and find out what our bosses do and, on a broader scale, learn how their work fits into the corporate machinery. Needless to say, plenty of lazy, unproductive, and incompetent bosses exist who don't do a heck of a lot in the course of an average working day. Most, however, rank above average on the productivity scale.

More important is how bosses do their jobs. How does your boss get things done? Is he invisible or omnipresent? Some bosses have a unique habit of being everywhere and nowhere. You don't see them much, yet their powerful personalities are felt everywhere. Ideal bosses seem to be the persons who are around when you need them yet leave workers alone to do their own thing. But some bosses never leave you alone and are always stalking the halls looking over workers' shoulders. They manage to have their hands in every pot, but add little to the taste.

An industrial designer employed by a large jewelry manufacturer had strong feelings about this type of boss. He said:

It's one thing if Jeanne knew what she was talking about. But more often than not, she's dead wrong. The upsetting part is that we have to bow to her commands. On one occasion, she had me redo a design because she thought it had flaws. It added 2 days to the project because we had to build a prototype product. Most of the designers have found a way to deal with Jeanne. If she suggests changes, we agree to them and then follow our own instincts, which are usually right.

But just as dangerous are the bosses who are never around when you need them. It usually takes a crisis to bring them out of their office to solve problems.

What are your boss's habits, work styles, goals, objectives, and values?

Believe it or not, your boss's primary goal is not to make your life miserable. You can't be that much of a narcissist. Like yourself, your boss wants things out of life. It's to your advantage to find out what they are.

Let's start with your boss's work habits and work styles. What time does he arrive every morning? Is he habitually late or early? Most of the aggressive bosses were compulsive about getting to work early. And they all did it for different reasons. What about yours? Many diligent bosses actually start work between 7 and 7:30 a.m. so they can get a head start on the day. In the early morning, without phones ringing and workers requiring their attention, they can get some serious work done, plan a meeting, sketch a proposal, prepare a complex budget, or converse with regional offices.

But I have also heard some incredible stories about goof-off bosses who get in early so their superiors and subordinates think they're diligent. Many have been caught doing a cross word puzzle or reading a novel. A few had the chutzpa to work on outside consulting assignments on company time. But the best story of all was a textile worker who barged into his boss's closed office to ask him an important question and found him huddled over a Superman comic. Now there's an eye-opener. In one awkward, naked second, this dumbfounded worker confirmed his suspicions about his boss being a blithering moron.

Once your boss arrives, what are his or her work patterns? Does she get right to work or hibernate for 30 to 40 minutes to figure out the priorities of the day? Some bosses can't wait to spring into action the moment they arrive. Some are fanatical about getting meetings over with early in the morning so the rest of the day can be spent on serious work.

A 23-year-old industrial designer for a large Minneapolis architectural firm says his boss purposely scheduled meetings at 8:30 a.m. on Mondays, the hardest day of the week to get in "Okay, So I'll Manage My Boss" early, so he could separate the superstars from the slackers. Nothing slipped by him either. He knew who came in early who charged in at the stroke of 8:30 a.m., and who habitually arrived late. What most of his workers didn't know was that he had practically a photographic eye. He saw everything and made a mental-and often a written-note of it.

How observant is your boss? This factors into his or her work style. As incredible as it seems, some bosses are oblivious to everything around them. They just assume that the work will get done and everyone is doing what they're supposed to do. Others eye their troops as if they were studying microscopic particles under an electron microscope. The message is never underestimate your boss's powers of observation.

What about your boss's goals and objectives? Many bosses with obsessive-compulsive work habits are perfectionists. Mediocrity is the enemy, and they won't tolerate slipshod work habits, laziness, or the reluctance to perform at any level but your best.

Other bosses are more concerned with simply getting the work done and meeting their quota or deadline so their boss doesn't get on their backs. They are content with just satisfactory quality. The job itself is not nearly as important as keeping their boss in check and warding off pending disasters.

How your boss feels about his work and the care and attention he gives it directly tie into his values. Bosses with strong work values are consumed with building careers.

Depending on their personalities, they could be either monsters or saints. From talking to hundreds of workers, it has been discovered that there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. In the process of doing an extraordinary job, they're either out for themselves or view their workers as partners in achieving exceptional results. Needless to say, the latter boss is every one's ideal. She's the humanitarian boss everyone dreams about having. Her instincts are health, she's tuned into the people around her and cares about achieving harmony in the ranks. The former boss, however, can be a walking horror story if you don't perform according to his or her standards.

The primary concern is producing an exceptional product or delivering an extraordinary service. If you fail in that pursuit, you've got a problem. The megalomaniac boss who's out for himself doesn't want to hear excuses, no matter how plausible they are. He just doesn't care.

How does your boss handle pressure?

Pressure affects people differently. For some, it's actually a catalyst yielding exceptional performance. There were a couple of bosses who were nicer human beings when they were up to their eyeballs in deadlines. The more stress they had, the easier it was to work with them. Constant pressure kept them going at fever pitch. In the absence of pressure, they felt insecure, threatened, and often agitated. On the flip side, pressure can also create emotional havoc in the form of nightmares, ulcers, back pain, and a host of other physical ills.

If you're lucky, your boss has a healthy pressure tolerance. That means pressure acts as a motivator or rallying point. However, for many bosses, pressure triggers internal and external pandemonium. Watch out! Bosses may then start looking for scapegoats on which they can unleash their seething tension.

What is your boss's management style?

Typically, most bosses fall into one of two management-style camps. The first is the hands-on, all-involved boss; the other encourages independent thinking and work habits. One is no better than the other. The practitioners of either management style can be heaven or hell. Bosses who practice the former can be an encouraging asset and boost to workers under them, especially new ones, if they keep a respectful distance and don't make compulsive pests of themselves. But if they are constantly looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do, even if you are doing your job better than they could have done it, you have a problem on your hands. Not only are they annoying, but they can also be destructive.

It can go either way with the latter boss as well. A boss who encourages you to do your own thing can be a blessing if he or she gives you enough instructions and information beforehand. But if he or she is a non-communicator who makes you go it alone no matter how difficult the assignment, you'll be anxious all the time because you're always fearfully groping in the dark. Often, you'll waste precious hours, even days, stumbling along by yourself, hoping you're doing your work properly. Needless to say, that makes for mighty stressful working conditions.

What exactly does your boss need?

You must have thought a great deal about your own professional needs. Depending on order of importance, they probably include stimulating and challenging projects, amicable peers, good pay and benefits, pleasant working conditions, and advancement potential, to name a few. Those are the broad-based needs. On a personal level, you also need feedback and interaction from your peers and boss. They fall under the all-inclusive heading of communication. For many, the amount of feedback we get from our bosses often defines how we do our jobs.

But what about your boss? What are his or her career needs, both on a broad and personal level? Of course, you never thought about them. You probably figured that they were no concern of yours. But in the big picture, they are important issues, although they have nothing to do with the quality of the relationship you have with your boss. Your boss's needs amount to critical information that can help you build a strong and resilient working relationship.

Answers to the following questions can pry open doors to a better understanding of your boss:
  • Is your boss the prototypical big fish in a little pond or is he or she content to be a minor player in a high-visibility company?
  • What does your boss look for from underlings? Yes-people, praise/stroking, backing, or honest appraisal?
  • What kinds of trappings does your boss need? Spartan cubicle or lavish office with all the amenities?
There are a variety of interesting answers to these questions. The big-fish-in-a-little-pond-type bosses seemed to be the most tyrannical. The reason is they feel most secure in small, nonthreatening organizations where they stand out and seem bigger and more effective than they actually are. They tend to be insecure, frustrated people with low self-esteem. A technician employed by a small software company had this to say:

When I did some checking around, I learned that my boss was fired from a Fortune 500 software company. He couldn't cut it because it was too competitive. He was a low-level supervisor with five people under him, and he could barely handle all the pressure from above. Here, he has 20 people under him, and he stalks the hall like a veritable giant. He thinks he's impervious to criticism, a giant among bosses, above and beyond reproach. But anyone who's worked with him for a few years knows he's afraid of his own shadow. When his boss calls him into his office, he's an emotional basket case thinking he is screwed up or about to be fired. Knowing this, we give him exactly what he wants. We treat him like a king and make him think he's special. It's pathetic, but that's what it takes to keep him off our backs.

In describing the trappings his boss needed, a paralegal employed in a large Minneapolis law firm said:

My boss had to be surrounded by luxury. She enjoyed setting herself apart from her workers who were confined to tiny offices. Her office was her power symbol, pointing up her wealth, ranking, and omnipotence. By displaying expensive paintings and furniture, she was conveying a strong message that said, "I have big clients; I make a lot more money than you do. Hence, I'm untouchable and better than you--so don't screw around with me." But she also had her Achilles heel--a CEO, board of directors, and stockholders who could unseat her if they discovered she wasn't performing properly It wasn't likely to happen, yet when paranoia got the better of her, she acted like an emotional pauper. She, too, was hungry for approval and stroking from her underlings who gladly complied.

Uncovering what bosses need from their underlings can also be an eye-opener. I learned about bosses who fell into two camps. In one camp were bosses who were terrified of making independent decisions and needed constant stroking and reassurance. In the other camp were independent bosses who were sure of themselves. They needed no feedback or reassurance from their workers. They made decisions easily and quickly. And they expected to have their orders carried out immediately with few questions asked. They didn't feel they had to over communicate. In fact, the less talk the better.

Many saw themselves as action people who preferred to maintain a distance from their troops.

What are your bosses strengths and weaknesses?

Don't say your boss has no strengths. Even wretched bosses have at least one redeeming strength. Typically it is often a bottom line asset (super sales person, money-making ideas, etc.) that landed them a supervisory job. Occasionally, organizational skills were responsible for putting some bosses in the power seat.

While some people had to wrack their brains to name one strength, they had little problem citing their bosses' weak nesses, the most common being incompetence and poor management skills. Also high on the list were the inability to make decisions and poor leadership skills.

More important than pinpointing your boss s strengths and weaknesses is understanding the effect they have on you. Typically, positive bosses don't affect us negatively. We learn and are often inspired by their strengths and understand their weaknesses. Negative bosses, however, have the opposite effect. A tyrannical, overbearing boss's strengths often intimidate shy underachievers. Weak, ineffectual bosses who ride on the coat-tails of their underlings infuriate fast-track super performers. And rightfully so. They work so hard to get ahead, only to find that they have an oppressive noose around their neck.

What about yourself? Look at your own situation and think about how your boss's strengths and weaknesses impact you.

What have you learned?

When you put it all together, what have you learned? And now that you have got the big picture, what are you going to do with it? Now that you have a clear picture of your boss's personality and work style, can you work together or is your only recourse finding another job?

Advice: Consider shoring up your boss s weaknesses and building on his or her strengths. Learn to fill in the gaps by making yourself indispensable. If your boss is the classic macro manager who has a difficult time dealing with a project's nitty-gritty details, pick up the slack and make sure they're handled. If he's good at analytical skills yet falters when it comes to presenting a project, help him gather the materials and organize his thoughts so that the presentation is perfect. But do it in an unobtrusive way so that you're not taking any credit for his successes.

If you're boss is a classic nitpicker and perfectionist, rev yourself up to become more detail oriented. If you're boss is obsessed with knowing intricate details, give them to him without being asked. Conversely, if your boss is a cut-to-the-chase, just-give-me-the-punch-line bottom-line person, hit her only with headlines and spare the details. Or if your boss is a power-crazy megalomaniac who must be in the spotlight, orchestrate events where he can be the star or at least stand out. Make him feel like he's the leader, one step ahead of everyone else.

A critical issue in managing your boss is always knowing the landscape. Veterans of "boss management" know what kind of mood their boss will be in before they walk in the door. Like a dog sensing his master's footsteps a block away, they know what to expect as their boss pulls into the parking lot.

Fact: Managing your boss is not about changing your boss, but accepting this person the way he or she is. Make sure you understand the difference. Many of us naively think we can actually change another person s behavior. It's not impossible, but it's a tall order. Suffice it to say that it's particularly hard in a boss-employee relationship. We'll touch on this concept briefly in the next chapter when we discuss talking to our boss one-on-one.

Successfully managing your boss represents a major under taking. Masters of the game know their bosses better than they know themselves. They're totally in tune with their rhythms. Most important, they know their hot buttons. They know when to be invisible and when to offer advice.

Don't for a minute think that managing your boss is easy. Not everyone can pull it off. Egocentric self-absorbed people, for example, find it very difficult to step out of their own skin and into someone else's. It means suspending your ambitions long enough to understand someone else's. Some see it as a waste of time, and others see it at as huge gamble, unsure of whether it will improve the relationship.

It's your call. How badly do you want to keep your job and move up the ladder? If advancement, not to mention peace of mind, is important to you, I'd give it my best shot. What do you have to lose?

Summing up, ponder the advantages of managing your boss:
  • Demystifies the relationship and puts it on a more equal keel by removing divisive barriers.
  • Allows you to see your boss as a real person, rather than as the devil or a deity.
  • Enables you to experience a sense of accomplishment if you pull it off.
  • Improves your attitude, work, and career prospects.
  • Gives you a priceless, transferable skill that you can use throughout your career.

If this article has helped you in some way, will you say thanks by sharing it through a share, like, a link, or an email to someone you think would appreciate the reference.

EmploymentCrossing was helpful in getting me a job. Interview calls started flowing in from day one and I got my dream offer soon after.
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