Before going into how to manage your boss, let’s show some revealing figures about our relationship with our manager.
According to a survey carried out in France, management at work is perceived as very directive:
- 74% of respondents consider that their supervisors “impose their points of view“
- 73% that their role consists of “enforcing the rules“
In addition to that, employees think of their ideal manager like that who is:
- Able to motivate teams – 62%
- An expert in their field – 49%
The discrepancy between expectations and reality explains why 48% of employees believe that the presence of their manager has no impact on their performance.
Although this study is limited to France, I believe the situation can be extended to all the Western World. As you can see, managers don’t have the best reputation.
However, holding the keys to develop a harmonious relationship with your boss can open you a lot of doors, as well as dramatically improve your work environment.
So, if you want to manage your boss and make him/her your ally, instead of your opponent, then this post is for you.
Why do you need to manage your boss and seek harmony?
By necessity, you will have a working relationship with your boss. But why does it have to be good?
The question seems obvious, yet few realize the positive impact that a good relationship with their boss can have.
Your boss needs you, as he/she needs to have loyal people to count and rely on. He/she needs trustworthy people to delegate in total calmness.
And you need your boss to promote your projects, to advance in your career, to support your ideas and defend you. You need him/her to have the resources, information, advice, and authorizations.
Your boss is the one who ultimately has the power of decision on a big deal of elements affecting your work life.
I distinctly saw it during past experiences: The employees who were getting along with their boss were getting much more budget, resources, autonomy, etc…
In theory, the boss should treat all his/her employees fairly, but the reality is obviously quite different. We are not in Disney world!
You could tell me: It’s up to our boss to adapt to us and not the other way around, he/she is better paid and experienced… He/she should be the one promoting a good relationship.
I also had this conception. I wouldn’t do any effort to get along with my boss because I was under his responsibility. I felt that part of his tasks was to ensure a good relationship with me.
But this study puts it, this reasoning creates a distorted and unrealistic vision of your boss.
Accordingly, we must be aware that they don’t know everything, that they are human, imperfect and fallible. They “don’t have unlimited time, encyclopedic knowledge or extrasensory perception” (Harvard Business Review, 2005).
Therefore, be proactive! You also have the cards in your hands.
How do we generally act with our boss?
It is very difficult to find the right balance when it comes to knowing how to manage your boss. In general, there are 3 common types of relationships:
The actors in this type of relationship are in contradiction, mistrust, power struggle and permanent conflict.
The boss is institutionally the bad guy who only serves his/her own interests, and uses the employees for his/her own purposes.
According to this study, counter-dependent employees see their boss as “someone who, by virtue of the role, is a hindrance to progress, an obstacle to be circumvented or at best tolerated. Psychologists call this pattern of reactions counter-dependent behavior”.
Employees sometimes even see their boss as their enemy, even more if he/she tends to be directive.
This type of relationship, by contrast to the previous one, consists of the employees putting their boss on a pedestal.
They are willing to do anything to satisfy his/her desires, seek at all costs his/her recognition, and constantly seek to give him/her satisfaction.
This is the other extreme of the spectrum. As J Gabarro and John P Kotter put it, they “tend to see the boss as if he or she were an all-wise parent who should know best, should take responsibility for their careers, train them in all they need to know and protect them”.
And between the 2 extremes, we have employees whose relationship with their boss is totally non-existent.
Their boss is neither their enemy nor their “all-wise parent”. They seek neither to harm him/her nor to please him/her. They are totally detached from the professional relationship.
What’s the best relationship type?
This is the one million dollar question: Which of the 3 relationship types do you think is the best?
None…!!!!! In the first case, of course, you will not get anything out of your boss and you will risk putting your projects and your job in danger. He/she will feel your hostility and will not trust you.
In the second case, even if you think that doing everything to please your boss will open all the doors for you, the reality is different: Your boss also likes measured contradiction.
A person who constantly agrees with him/her, and does not honestly express what he/she thinks, will never earn the respect of his/her boss. I’ve seen it many times, believe me!
Moreover, you may be disillusioned because you will expect too much from him/her, you will take his/her criticisms too seriously and will need his/her constant recognition.
In my experience, I have always put too much affection and attachment to my relationship with my boss. I expected a lot from them emotionally. I confused a good relationship with affection.
And between the two, you will have neither a good nor a bad relationship, you will simply have “a non-relationship” without much interest or benefit whatsoever.
Know yourself first so you know how to manage your boss later
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdomAristotle
Before you know how you can manage your boss, you need to know perfectly how you function in the workplace.
What you need to know before you can manage your boss
Your qualities and defaults
Knowing your qualities and defaults will help you be confident about what you can bring to the table, and take the lead on subjects for which you know your potential.
You can try this out if you want to better know your qualities and defaults.
In order to work in the best possible conditions, do you need everything to be framed? Do you need a very regular follow-up, a lot of pressure, or on the contrary more autonomy and lack of pressure?
Your boss won’t necessarily try to know you. Plus, he/she isn’t a fortune-teller! So open his/her eyes and explicitly express your needs so that he/she can decode you more easily.
Not sure what you’re looking for yet? It’s normal, don’t worry! The more training you do and the more experience you gain, the better you’ll know yourself professionally.
Before my first internship, for instance, I didn’t realize that I hated working under pressure so much! I learned it and expressed it afterward. It is, therefore, a story-time worthy moment.
During my first internship (well before I knew anything about how to manage your boss), I realized that the pressure was holding me back instead of stimulating me. I was in a very stressful recruitment agency. My boss couldn’t guess it because her other employees were performing well thanks to this pressure.
So I quickly talked to her about it, I told her that if she wanted to get the best out of me, she had to let me breathe because I was already under enough pressure myself.
I expressed my work style and needs. She understood that it was in her interest to give me some space, so the relationship went very well, I was more productive and everyone benefited from it.
Your boss can’t always guess how you work and he/she can also apply his/her own way of working to you, which is the mistake I made. That leads me to the second story time!
Story time 2!
Later in my career, naively, I thought that just like me, no one could appreciate working under pressure.
So I would ask managers not to put pressure on trainees. I thought I was doing the right thing. However, I understood by discussing with my trainees that many, on the contrary, needed adrenaline and tight deadlines in order to be efficient.
So I realized that we have to see things without our own lenses. I thought I was doing the right thing when, in fact, I wasn’t responding to the work-styles of the interns I was in charge of.
But to realize this, I needed my interns to let me know, which is why you must communicate.
What your needs are really about
Each employee has different work styles and expectations: Some expect precise guidelines with regular monitoring, others a high degree of autonomy, some expect high pressure and others tranquility. So give the code of your decoder!
Your reactions (and how to anticipate them)
It is necessary to be aware of what can complicate or facilitate your discussions with your boss. Your clarity will allow you to take the necessary steps in order to optimize the quality of the relationship.
As J Gabarro and John P Kotter explain, “if your attempts to discuss a problem with your boss are unsuccessful, try to deal with your own instinctive reactions to change the situation. When you feel you reach an impasse, check your own impatience and suggest a little break, and think about it before getting together again. Usually, when you renew your discussion, you will have digested your differences and will be more able to work them through”.
I’m not telling you not to fight for your ideas, change your personality or betray your values.
Instead, I’m asking you to take the time to deal with your instinctive reactions and digest the differences to try to find a compromise later.
Once you know yourself, you must then analyze how your manager works. Only then will you be able to truly manage your boss.Get to know your boss
According to John J Gabarro and John P Kotter, you must get to know your boss’:
To manage your boss, you need to know what his/her priority objectives are.
Don’t rely on your assumptions, make sure you clarify your boss’ expectations as much as possible. Otherwise, you risk making decisions that are not in line with his/her priorities and objectives.
Be aware that his/her priorities and concerns might change. So question your boss regularly to verify your assumptions.
Your concern will be highly appreciated.
Sources of pressure
What are his/her sources of pressure?
Does he/she and his/her boss are well into tight deadlines?
Very ambitious projects?
Is right now a good time to share your stress with him/her? Or should you avoid adding more and leave the conversation for later?
Strengths and weaknesses
What are his/her qualities, what can it bring to you or teach you?
In which area should you leave him/her totally in control? On the other hand, what can you bring to him/her for reassurance?
How can you be useful or even essential?
Does your boss like having detailed reporting or rather an overview?
Does he/she prefer exchange information through mail, formal meeting, call, message?
Does he/she like to have weekly or monthly reports? Does he/she like to control or prefer to delegate?
As professor Peter Drucker explains in this study, you will have to pay special attention to your boss in order to discover your boss is a listener or a reader.
With that in mind, does he/she like to receive information in a report so he/she can read and study? Or does he/she prefer oral presentation so that there’s a more fluid discussion?
On my first full-time job, I had my very first meeting to discuss the recruitment roadmap. When it was my turn, I started detailing every single recruitment, the same way I’d do it in previous internships.
Mid-air, my manager cut me off and told me that he needed to know the big picture.
“I need to know how many people we need to recruit, how many were recruited, and on which jobs”. He said.
His legitimate questions totally caught me off guard. I wasn’t been able to give an answer quickly, we had wasted time and I had come out frustrated.
My colleagues told me that given the number of things he was dealing with, we had to get straight to the point.
For the next meeting, therefore, I prepared my intervention differently, highlighting only the key figures. We saved time and the meeting was much more productive.
If I hadn’t adapted to his work-style, my boss would have felt like he was wasting his time and I would have been frustrated to always be caught off guard. I would have probably lost confidence.
Learn from your mistakes and adapt accordingly: Anticipate and ask for the type and frequency of information your boss wants.
Without this key information, you will navigate blind and things won’t go great for you. Misunderstanding will lead to issues and, potentially, conflicts.
Now that you know yourself and what your boss needs, it is now time to establish a way of working efficiently together.
Construct and maintain a healthy working relationship with your boss
After a clear understanding of yourself and your boss, you will be ready to develop a healthy working relationship based on the clarity of your respective work styles, goals and expectations.
You need to construct a working relation that “fits both of you and meets the most critical needs of the other person”. This way, you will both benefit from it and be more productive & efficient.
In order to achieve that, you can do these 5 things so that you establish a working relationship as good as soy sauce on sushi (or Gin on Tonic or Beyoncé on single ladies):
Accommodate the different work styles
A good relationship requires the ability to adapt your work style, but changing it is not easy, so you can help yourself with simple actions and concrete tools. A big deal of getting to manage your boss boils down to compatibility.
John J Gabarro and John P Kotter give a rather concrete example about this:
Let’s imagine that your work style tends to be discursive and exploratory whereas your boss is direct and straightforward. He/she will get impatient every time you digress from the immediate issue.
When you realize the difference, you know you will have to become more direct during meetings. But if your work style is the opposite, you should try and get closer to that end of the spectrum.
For instance, you could write a plan for the meeting that will allow you to follow certain guidelines and have a more structured presentation.
This change will surely make the meeting more productive and less frustrating for both of you.
According to the study, creating a good relationship “also involves drawing on each other’s strengths and making up for each other’s weakness”.
It’s about creating a win-win working team!
And no, don’t think your boss knows everything and that he/she is better than you in every field. Be humble, yes!! But if you know you’re stronger on a particular task, offer your help.
On the other hand, don’t be shy to express to him/her when there is something you aren’t totally at ease with. He/she is also there to help you improve.
Clarify your mutual expectations
In order to manage your boss, you need to know getting there looks like. Hence, you must always clarify your boss’s expectations, you can’t assume anything. Some will be very explicit, others much less so.
For this, don’t think about your periodic career interviews or performance reviews. They take place once or twice a year and, while you get there, your relationship with your boss can deteriorate.
If your boss is vague during your discussion about his/her expectations, you can a follow-up email after the meeting recapitulating each of the expectations and ask for his/her clarification.
You also can initiate a series of informal discussions about expectations or you can ask information with the people used to working with your boss.
When you have a clearer understanding of your boss’ expectations, it’ll be time to communicate your own. It’s important that your boss understands the ones that are important to you.
If you have trouble communicating your expectations, I advise you to use the method of Marshall Rosenberg, which is really handy because it is very concrete and easy to use.
Marshall Rosenberg, American psychologist, developed a 4-step method to help us easily formulate our needs, called the OFNR method:
- Observation: Explain what you observe
- Feeling: Explain how you feel
- Need: Indicate your needs
- Request: Express your request clearly and positively with concrete actions
Here’s an example:
You had not given me any feedback after the successful launch of the digital platform on which I worked for 3 months.
I was very disappointed and not really satisfied.
I need your trust and encouragement when my projects are successful To keep me motivated and committed, I also need your recognition when you are satisfied with my work.
Do you think it’s possible to give me positive feedback when I deserve it?
If it makes you feel better, write a script and practice what you’re gonna say!
You’ll be able to manage your boss by showing that you are reliable, that he/she can count on you, and trust you.
Don’t commit to delivering a project on an unrealistic date even if at the moment, you will satisfy your boss. If, in the end, you don’t respect the deadline, you will lose his/her trust and your credibility.
Similarly, if you make a mistake, don’t try to hide for fear of your boss’ reaction. Instead, raise your hand and let him/her know. It’ll be much better in the long term.
If your boss discovers your mistakes from a different source, he/she will no longer trust and will tend to want to control and monitor everything. That will clearly affect the working relationship.
To show your reliability and seriousness, it is important to keep him/her regularly informed of your work. He/she may ask you to do so, but if he/she doesn’t, take the initiative and send him/her a summary email once a week showing your work, progress, and accomplishments.
Even if it seems like a time-consuming process, it is actually a win-win situation.
It will allow him/her to be reassured and to have an idea of your progress.
You appreciate receiving compliments for your work, don’t you? Recognition touches us because it values our work and investment.
Your boss, like any other human, does appreciate receiving positive feedback.
It doesn’t happen to him/her every day, he/she has to deal with criticism and pressure instead. So don’t hesitate to show him/her your gratitude by saying a simple but powerful “thank you”.
Believe me, even if he/she doesn’t show it, he/she will be touched and will appreciate your gratitude.
Of course, do it only if you really think so and you appreciate his/her help.
Know your boss’ rhythm
We all have different rhythms and moments in which we are more efficient, or others in which we’re more open to discussion.
It is relevant to know your boss’ pace to ask him/her your questions at the right time.
Very concrete example: I knew that my manager was not at all a morning person, so I tried, as much as possible not to show up in his office at 9 am with my list of questions and problems!
Because I knew the discussion might turn short! I was waiting for the afternoon or the end of the day because I was aware that the discussion would be much more efficient and pleasant for him.
Get to know your boss’ pace, and you will make your job easier!
Similarly, when you feel your boss is under stress, don’t add an extra burden. On the contrary, offer your help.
Even if you can’t help him/her, he/she will appreciate that you are supportive and willing to help him/her. This will only strengthen your relationship.
Create a link
You must create a bond with your boss. The stronger this bond is, the more it will support you and help you in your career.
Invite him/her for lunch occasionally, take an interest in him not only as your boss but also as a person.
As everything in life, the relationship must be balanced. Don’t be a total stranger, but also don’t become his/her best friend. A necessary and healthy distance must be present.
Create a nice and strong bond with your boss, and his/her support will strengthen.
Gaining this level of self-awareness and getting to manage your boss can sound difficult.
In fact, when you think about it, the ingredients necessary for a good relationship with your boss are not far from those you use to have good relationships in general.
In a nutshell, here’s the recipe for you to manage your boss:
- 500 g of good and fluid communication
- 500 g of respect, understanding and mutual aid
And mix it with:
- Your knowledge of your own expectations
- Your boss’s understanding of 4 factors: Goals, pressures, strengths & weaknesses, and work style
- A working style that fits for both of you
In practice, it’s not that simple, I’ll give you that. I could tell you that by reading this article, you and your boss will become the Timon and Pumba of your company!
But I want to be honest, there is also a probability you won’t because we are talking about humans, so even if you apply each step of the recipe it still could fail.
This is the difficulty of human relations, especially at work, when so many aspects are at stake and so many human factors involved.
So if this post can’t promise you a 100% harmonious relationship with your boss, it will at least ensure your serenity, because the simple fact of reading this article shows your desire and effort to develop good work relations with him/her.
So even if the relationship is not the one you were hoping for, you will have no regret as you will have tried. And remember that failure isn’t to fail, but not to try at all 😉
I would go further and say that you can be proud of yourself as self-questioning and understanding others is not a piece of cake.
We all have an ideal boss in mind, but our dream can’t become reality without us, as no boss can achieve our ideal and improve in his/her role without the feedback and help of his/her employees.
It is said that behind every great man there is a great woman. I will conclude by saying that behind every great boss there is a great employee 🙂