Dissing or throwing a tantrum is not the way to engage with a boss who is tough, unresponsive or just too busy. Instead, work hard to build a lasting relationship
The other day, I had a young associate vent to me about the utter lack of a relationship with her new boss at a bank. She was new at the job, never seemed to get anything right, couldn’t see the bigger picture and never got any feedback. Her boss wasn’t badgering her, but worse, he just seemed to have given up on her, picking other people for important tasks and being generally dismissive of her abilities. She was slowly getting the hang of the job, liked the industry and the company, but was demotivated, resentful and no longer enjoying coming into work. Should she quit or ask to be assigned to someone else?
Knowing the manager in question, and that he wasn’t a (complete) ogre, I suggested that she take more responsibility for the relationship. Difficult, disorganized, dismissive bosses—she would probably encounter them all during her career. Given the impact that her supervisors would have on her daily state of mind, as well as her career progression, she may as well start learning how to manage upwards early on.
So, much like any other relationship, much of what you get out of your boss is directly attributable to your investment in the relationship, on how you set and manage expectations and handle the inevitable ups and downs. To start with, recognize that this is a symbiotic relationship, lopsided though it might be. The first step is to understand and internalize the goals, motivation of your boss, his longer term professional goals apart from his immediate objectives and deliverables. Your work and output have an impact on the performance and state of mind of your boss. How can you make him look good?
Understand and agree on your role in the larger scheme of things, his expectations of you. This involves not just agreeing on your tasks, but on overall objectives, defining your boundaries in terms of decision-making, clarity on how things must be done, how these are presented, when these are reviewed. Minimize mistakes or miscommunication—summarize meetings and decisions and play them back, making sure you both are on the same page. This also ensures you cover yourself if things go wrong.
Build credibility and trust
Be reliable, do not overpromise and under-deliver. Agree on realistic objectives, stick to your timelines and review them regularly. And do stretch to whatever you have to do to deliver, on time, every time—if the maid didn’t show up on Friday and you were late to work, come in and finish the task on Saturday. If you feel you have taken on more than you can handle, stop, think through solutions and reset expectations well in time, wherever possible. If you mess up, take responsibility.
Minimize bad surprises
Most important, make sure you forewarn, pre-empt, fix—do not let your boss end up with egg on his face because of something that was your job.
Realize that your boss probably has many priorities, more results to achieve and other people to manage, and the same number of hours in a day as you do. Agree on when to have reviews, book specific times, prioritize, show up on time and keep meetings focused. Always take notes, always save the notes, don’t be fumbling constantly for that pen or looking for the file. Anticipate issues and be prepared, have data on hand.
Solutions, not problems
While there is a time to vent and share frustrations, the last thing a boss wants is constant whinge in his office. Even if the problem was of your making, be a part of the solution—go beyond the task, analyse the issues, and think through and present the options, along with the challenge. Presenting multiple-choice options will show that you have thought through the issues and are taking on some of the responsibility. You may not always get it right, but at least the guy knows you are trying to stretch—and make his job easier.
Adapt and adopt
This ranges from figuring out whether he is a morning person, prefers bullet points or details, email or face-to-face interaction, how he likes to see things presented, how often, etc. Big picture or nitty-gritty numbers? PowerPoint or Excel? Look beyond, for his pace, body clock, biases and quirks. Once identified, this stuff is relatively easy to adapt to. However, at a higher level, this also means figuring out if he is creative or numbers-driven? Disorganized or meticulous? Cautious or aggressive? Revenue driver or cost manager? Delegator or controller? How you adapt, to complement—or counteract—these traits, is key to making him—and you—look good.
While you want to be careful not to overstep your brief, demonstrate what you can do beyond your immediate task, articulate the skills you would like to develop, show that you are hungry to learn from him. Those who ask for more responsibility, often end up getting it. Apart from taking stuff off his plate, you grow faster. And do ask for feedback and set up short reviews, even if he doesn’t schedule these.
Build a relationship
This does not mean discussing your personal problems in minute detail every day. It means dealing with him as a person, in the way you wish to be treated, as you would in any important relationship. He’s (probably) human, and while you don’t need to be his friend, appreciate that he has problems, bad days, children and hobbies too. And even if you don’t like him, he’s the boss, for a reason, so show respect. Bosses are quite good at spotting insincerity, so keep it real. Gossiping or bitching about him or general politicking at the workplace almost always comes back to bite you. Don’t make him look bad in public, but do provide carefully worded constructive suggestions to him, in private.
When things do go wrong, as they sometimes will, mistakes usually get analysed, responsibility assigned and translated into learning opportunities. But like in any other relationship, acknowledgment of the good is important, and this need not all be the traditional one-way street, from boss to you. Give positive feedback, write that note, tell him what you learned and how you enjoyed that deal, celebrate the good days—go ahead, make his day.
And sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, things don’t work out. The trust is broken, the chemistry isn’t there or he’s just a git. But try your best, before calling it a day, if you must. And learn from it. If it happens again with the next boss, then you probably need to reassess how you manage up.
Sonal Agrawal is managing partner, Accord India, an executive search firm.