How would you describe your relationship with your boss? Do
you have influence? Benefit from receiving information and advice? Do you get
the resources you need to do your job well? Does your boss support your short-
and long-term career objectives? If so, count yourself among the lucky.
Most supervisors want to do all these things for their
direct reports, but they don't spell out their expectations very clearly and they don't set aside the time to develop the people they supervise. The good news is that your relationship with your boss is a two-way street. You can take responsibility for cultivating a healthy working relationship.
Use these tips to put together a plan of action to get what
you need out of the partnership.
Build a foundation of trust and dependability
To be successful, you have to be perceived as someone others
can count on. I chose the word "perceived" intentionally. In this case, your intent matters very little. What matters is what people think of you. If your boss trusts you and is confident that you can be counted on, you have a great foundation on which to build. If not, everything else is irrelevant.
How do you build trust and dependability? Be on time. Do
what you say you will. Accept responsibility for problems. Meet deadlines or
proactively renegotiate the due dates. Don't gossip or complain about your boss—make sure you'd be comfortable if your boss walked up and overheard anything you say.
Understand your boss
Familiarize yourself with your boss's priorities and goals and tune into the pressure he or she is under. Know how his or her performance is measured. Develop an understanding of how your work supports your boss's goals. The more you understand your boss's strengths, weaknesses, work style and needs, the better you will be able to tailor your approach.
Gain an understanding of what your boss wants to know and
how he or she wants to receive the information—and whether that preference is
situational. For example, your boss might prefer an informal discussion when in
the office and e-mail when he or she is traveling. The decision-making styles
of people also vary greatly. Understand what kinds of decisions your boss wants
to be involved in and what things he or she is happy to delegate to you. When
you take a problem or concern to your boss, be prepared to offer some
constructive suggestions for addressing it.
It's important to use your boss's time selectively. However, people are more likely to find themselves in a difficult situation because they didn't consult with their boss than because they shared too much. Being respectful of your boss's time is not an excuse for not anticipating his or her need to know about something.
Your boss represents only half of the equation. You need to
understand your own strengths, weaknesses, work preferences and needs.
Negotiate what you need from your boss. If you want your boss's career support, discuss your aspirations and the type of opportunities you are looking for to grow and develop. Ask for help and support.
It's also important to know how others in the organization perceive you. Any time you have the opportunity to get feedback, seize it. Ask questions in a way that invites a constructive, candid response. You're always better off knowing how others see you, especially if that image is inconsistent with your intent or self-perception. It's natural for us to avoid things we're not good at and to overuse our strengths. If you identify inconsistencies with how you are perceived and how you want to be perceived, develop a plan to address them.
Master the art of asking questions
When you make assumptions about someone else's actions, you run the risk of being wrong, which can lead to dysfunctional patterns. Master the art of asking questions to gain understanding. Questions are more powerful than statements. When you make a statement, you commit yourself without learning anything about your boss's perception of the situation. A well-worded question allows you to get additional information.
Be succinct and don't supply the answers. Most of us have the tendency to ask rambling multiple-choice questions. For example, you might ask: "Do you think it would be better for me to recruit using LinkedIn, the local paper or a job board?" Instead try, "What recruitment sources have you found to be most effective?"
Get comfortable with silence. Ask your question and then let
your boss consider it and respond. You won't learn anything if you do all the talking. If you don't understand something about the response, ask a clarifying question. If the response doesn't answer your question, ask it again in a different way. Also, don't ask yes-or-no questions, don't ask leading questions and don't use charged words (see this Fast Company article for more advice). Hint: This skill is particularly useful when you're being criticized.
Don't climb the ladder
No, I'm not talking about the corporate ladder. I'm referring to the ladder of inference, developed by Chris Argyris at Harvard University. We tend to look for information that affirms our impressions of someone. If I think my boss is a micromanager, I'm likely to look for signs that confirm this perspective. This habit dangerously narrows your point of view and will cause you to miss opportunities to connect with someone, influence thinking and build alliances. Familiarize yourself with the ladder of inference (see resources below) and turn what is usually a subconscious process into a conscious one.
Build your resilience
Work is stressful. Heck, life is stressful. And most
approaches to stress management are unrealistic—how can I realistically reduce
my stress if it comes from being sandwiched between caring for my parents and
children? Focus instead on building your resilience, so you're prepared to deal with whatever work and life throws your way. How? Exercise! The more fit you are the more resilient you are.
Don't sacrifice future career success by seeing yourself as a passive subordinate. Take action to make your relationship with your boss what you want it to be.