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The relationship with your boss is one of the most important in the workplace. Your boss has the power to recommend you for new assignments, high-profile teams, promotions, and raises. She can make your life miserable or help you achieve your goals. Yet, despite the importance of this relationship, there are many more books on how to manage direct reports than how to manage bosses. This article explores four factors—style, context, relationship, and urgency—to consider before giving up on the relationship with your boss.
The Style Factor
Your boss can’t seem to create a plan to save her life, and it’s driving you nuts. Yes, your boss may have been promoted beyond her level of competency, but it’s also possible that it’s a simple style issue.
People are wired in different ways. Some of us can’t live without action items and project plans: Others find lists to be overly constricting, tedious, and counterproductive. Bridging the style gap is easier than it sounds. For years, assessment tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, FIRO-B, DiSC, Insights, and others have identified people’s preferences and “defaults”: The behaviors that they return to over and over again, particularly during times of fatigue and stress. By gaining awareness of your own defaults, you can quickly and easily identify the gaps between the styles of you and your boss.
Common style clashes occur around predictable issues:
- Attitude towards uncertainty: Does one of you prefer to respond in the moment and create as they go while the other can’t function without a plan?
- Attitude towards time: Is one of you always 5 minutes early to meetings while the other shows up 10 minutes late?
- Attitude towards control: Does one of you like to work loosely and independently while the other prefers to control processes tightly and review work?
- Information processing: Does one of you need quiet time to process information and think through courses of action while the other doesn’t seem to be able to exist without talking?
Having a conversation about style can be easy and non-confrontational. By referring to what you know to be true—that people have different orientations and attitudes towards things like uncertainty and time—you move out of the blaming trap and into problem solving. The conversation shifts from “I think you’re crazy because you don’t plan” to “We have different orientations towards planning. Let’s talk about what we can do to satisfy both of our needs.”
The Context Factor
It’s easy to blame your boss for not getting back to you on time or not prioritizing your needs. He just doesn’t seem to understand that you need her help now!
Before getting angry, consider the context in which your boss operates. Most leaders function in worlds of complexity. They’re pulled in multiple directions. They manage diverse constituencies. They’re thrown curve balls every day while being expected to keep all the balls in the air.
In this world of complexity and responsibility, your phone call is a blip on the screen, a whisper amidst the deafening roar. So how do you make your important issue become her important issue? Try these techniques:
- Choose your moment. You probably already know the best times to approach your boss. Perhaps it’s first thing in the morning… or maybe it’s deadly to talk before he’s had her coffee. In any case, choose your moment wisely, when he’s fairly calm and can focus on you.
- Plan your message. In the world of complexity, bosses are often overwhelmed by the amount of problems to solve and issues to address. Break the mold by thinking through your message before approaching your boss. That way, you know what you want, what you need, and how to say it so that he can hear it.
- What is the bottom line?
- What is the impact on the business?
- What are some options you’ve explored?
- What do you need from him?
- Link to her concerns. What does your boss care about? What makes him tick? What are her pet peeves? What is he being called on to deliver by her bosses? Before entering her office, think through her context and how your issue connects with her world. How could resolving your issue help address her challenges?
The Relationship Factor
Your boss seems to spend all of her free time with one of your colleagues. Their kids are on the same soccer team and so the two see each other outside of work. Why should you be surprised, then, that your colleague’s projects get more attention than yours?
Relationships fuel interactions in organizations. The more someone trusts you, the more likely that person is to seek you out for advice, listen to your requests, and collaborate with you. It’s no different with your boss. Like you, she tends to go to the people she trusts. Are you one of those people?
Often people mistake “building relationships” for becoming intimate friends with colleagues. Not true! There’s no need to tell your boss about your drunken college hi-jinks or the details of your recent doctor appointment. However, you do need to know enough about your boss to let him know that you understand and support him. Here are some questions to help you assess how well you know your boss:
- What is your boss’s family situation? Does he have children? Young or grown?
- What are your boss’s hobbies and/or habits outside of work? Does he ski, breed Yorkshire terriers, or grow organic vegetables?
- How does he like people to communicate with him? By phone, email, in person or some other way?
- Which tasks does he prefer to delegate? In which tasks does he like to participate?
- What could you do as a favor or “extra” that he’d deeply appreciate?
Can you answer all of the questions? None?
If you don’t know very much about your boss, it’s time to start learning… and then acting on what you know. Perhaps that means covering for your boss when he picks up his sick 6-year-old or including him in tasks involving R&D, his favorite function. Then, when you need him to listen, he’ll be more likely to be there for you since you’ve so clearly been there for him.
The Urgency Factor
And, finally, remember the story of the boy who cried wolf. He kept sounding false alarms—The wolves are here!—to see if the villagers would really come. They did, but eventually, they got tired. And when the real wolves showed up, they didn’t respond to the boy’s alarm, and he was forced to confront them himself.
Make sure that the alarms you’re sounding are real ones. Think through how you want to utilize your boss. Do you really want to use him for this issue? Or can it wait? Plan your time with him wisely, and you’ll be much more successful managing up.