Managing Your Boss
Developing an Effective Working Relationship
We all want to work for someone who's confident, supportive and respectful, all of the time.
But even the most dedicated bosses can have their weaknesses. They may lack experience, or have trouble juggling competing demands. They may seem unappreciative or overly demanding, or be absent when you need them. Or perhaps you just don't "get along."
Yet a good relationship with your boss is key to a happy work life, to the success of your team, and to making progress in your career. So what can you do to bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be?
In this article, we lead you through the steps that you can take to make your relationship with your boss more productive, and to create an alliance that benefits both of you.
How to Manage Your Boss
Your boss likely has many working relationships to manage, and his or her relationship with you may not be at the top of his list. But it should be at the top of yours.
Of course, you can't really "manage" your boss, as such. Whether you like it or not, he is senior to you, and you are accountable to him – even if you think that he's "out of his depth," or that he's been unfairly promoted "over your head." (See our article, Working With Rivals, for more on this.)
When you accept the reality of this situation, you can start to take responsibility for making the relationship work to your mutual advantage. What's more, setting aside personal differences for the greater good demonstrates initiative and emotional intelligence – two of the key qualities that organizations look for in a potential leader.
At its best, your relationship with your boss will be based on respect, trust, collaboration and effective communication. But when things are not going so well, it's useful to know what you can do to improve the situation, and what you have the right to expect in return.
Consider the following five strategies:
1. Understand Your Boss's Style
Different bosses have different Leadership Styles. And their leadership styles may vary according to the situation, and the people involved.
Observe your boss's style, and then think about the way that you prefer to be managed. Look for the common ground, and consider how you can build upon it. Then, identify the areas that cause friction or dysfunction, and set out to address them, too.
What are your boss's specific expectations of you, in terms of productivity and behavior, for example? Does she like to know what you're doing at all times, or is her approach more "laissez-faire"? Does she encourage innovation, or does she prefer to do things "by the book"?
Also, look carefully at your boss's communication style. Is she concerned only with facts, or does she seek opinions and ideas from others before making a decision? Does she prefer email or messaging to face-to-face chats? (If so, it may be time to brush up your Writing Skills!)
As well as observing your boss, look at the qualities that she appreciates in team members who've done well under her management, and work on developing them yourself.
Workplace cultures can vary widely across different countries and organizations.
This can make communication more difficult, or lead to mismatched expectations between you and your boss – particularly if you're working abroad, or joining a new company, for example. Read our article, Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions, to learn more about this.
2. Demonstrate Your Value
Demonstrating your worth to your boss doesn't mean bragging or "blowing your own trumpet." It's about showing that you share a common purpose, and that you're willing to work together – and to take direction – to achieve it. This helps to build trust and rapport.
For example, to do his job well, your boss needs reliable information. Always keep him "in the loop" – and, if a problem arises, or a deadline can't be met, don't hide it. Instead, be honest, and give him as much time as possible to work out how to respond. And, if it's appropriate, offer suggestions based on your own expertise.
If you're given a particularly difficult task, think creatively to solve the problem. If you can't do it on your own, make sure that you can propose a solution when you go to your boss for help. Work out what resources you need, and be prepared to ask for them.
3. Enhance Your Boss's Reputation
When you look good, your boss looks good, too, and this benefits everyone!
Always keep your team's goals in mind, and remember that they likely align with your boss's own objectives. Helping her to achieve them will likely help her career, and yours.
The flip side of this is to avoid making your boss look bad, and never to behave in a way that means she has to defend you. After all, your boss is accountable to her boss, who will likely question why your manager can't control her team.
You can also help to compensate for your boss's weaknesses or oversights. If she isn't quite on top of things in a team meeting, for example, and she forgets to appoint someone to take responsibility for a key action, you could ask, "Who would you like to do that?" Wording your question in this way makes it seem cooperative and supportive, rather than critical.
Avoid criticizing your boss to others at work, even in private. It won't do your reputation any favors – and word will eventually get back to her, which will undermine her faith in you.
There may be times when you know that your boss has made a mistake or a bad decision. In such cases, use your best judgment to decide how to bring it to his or her attention.
When you do so, proceed with tact and respect. You can learn more about this – and what to do if your boss's actions are in breach of company policy, or even illegal – in our article, How to Tell Your Bosses They're Wrong.
4. Ask For What You Want
Just as you support your boss, your boss should be a resource for you. You should be able to rely on him for advice, support and career development.
Even so, asking for help can be tricky. Many people feel that it's a sign of weakness. In fact, it's the opposite. If you're struggling at work, a good boss will appreciate the effort you make to address the problem before it affects your performance, or that of your team.
When you go to him for help, be sure that you can identify the problem clearly. Describe what you've done so far to tackle it, and be as specific as you can about the help that you need.
Similarly, when you ask your boss for training, coaching, or other forms of career development, be clear about what you want. Present a valid case for how it will benefit you as an individual, and the team as a whole.
Being assertive and proactive will more likely win your boss's respect, and be successful, than if you just wait and hope.
You should also let your manager know how you prefer to be managed. You can make this part of your regular one-on-ones.
Let him know about your preferred communication style, how much autonomy you like to have, and in which aspects of your role you need more direction. An effective boss will take notice: after all, it will make his job easier, too.
5. Deal With Bad Behavior
There's a broad range of behavior that can make your relationship with your boss difficult.
Some bosses are not really cut out for the role. For example, they may have been promoted because of their technical knowledge, but lack "soft skills" such as team building and negotiation.
If your boss is unresponsive or "invisible," it could be that she lacks confidence in managing a team. The best way to improve your relationship in these situations may be to empathize with the pressure that she's under, and to offer your support.
But some bad behavior is tougher to crack. You may need to call out an overly demanding or micromanaging boss, and explain how her behavior is damaging the team. The same goes for over-eager, driven managers who won't take no for an answer when your workload has reached full capacity.
In circumstances like these, avoid confrontation. Instead, have a frank and balanced conversation with her in as neutral a situation as possible. Prepare carefully, stick to the one issue, and don't make it personal!
Your boss may be shocked to hear of the effect that her behavior is having. If so, offer solutions. For example, you could suggest that a micromanaging boss delegate specific pieces of work to you, and offer to give her regular status updates.
If bad behavior crosses the line into bullying or other unacceptable behavior, it's important that you protect yourself.
Keep a written record of all communications that you have with your boss, and be ready to take the problem to your HR department. Most organizations have a formal grievance process, so make sure you are familiar with it. You may be asked for supporting evidence.
Your relationship with your boss should be happy, productive and mutually beneficial.
You accept your boss's authority, but you both recognize your responsibilities to one another, and understand that you share a common purpose.
To reach this understanding, you can use the following five strategies:
- Understand your boss's style.
- Demonstrate your value.
- Enhance your boss's reputation.
- Ask for what you want.
- Deal with bad behavior.