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Managing your boss: 4 Rules to live by and 4 steps to take

Managing your boss:

4 Rules to live by and 4 steps to take

Copyright © 2006  The National Learning Institute
Author: Bob Selden
Managing Director
The National Learning Institute
6 March 2007

John was a former boss of mine.  Before I started working for him, I had heard from others that he had a very good reputation and so I was really looking forward to working with him.  The office was a very busy one with lots of customer interaction and a very heavy processing workload.  After the first couple of months, I got the feeling that there was no real harmony in our relationship and I found it difficult to work out why.  John was good with the customers and well liked by other staff, but we just didn’t seem to hit it off.  It was not until my formal performance appraisal some months later that I finally found out what the problem was.  The job I’d taken over was in a real mess and required a great deal of management skill to get it back on track, which I believed I had done well.  During my performance appraisal discussion, John acknowledged my good work in this area, but (and it was a big “but” for him) he didn’t see me doing enough marketing with potential customers.

You see, John’s pet interest was marketing and he expected all of his people to make this their number one priority. 

Do you know what your manager’s number one or key priorities are? 

Although we often have performance discussions with our manager, how clear are we on the order of priority they have for each area of our performance?  How clear are they themselves about their “expectations” of us?  These “expectations” are often unwritten and in fact may be somewhat different to the formal performance requirements of the role.

So, what’s the best way to manage the relationship with your boss?  There are two aspects of this; firstly four clear action steps that you can plan for and take at the start of your working partnership and secondly, four “rules” that you should follow in all your dealings with your boss to ensure a productive working relationship is maintained.

Step One:  Agree your manager’s expectations of you

A simple way of doing this, is to have a discussion with him or her (preferably soon after you start in the role).  Ask your manager;

  • “What are the top three priorities in the role that you would like me to focus on?” 
  • Or, if you have a formal performance discussion, ask your manager to assign a percentage figure of “importance” against each one of your key responsibility areas (each area should be given a percentage out of a total for all areas of 100%) so that you can assess his or her priorities.  You should also ask “Why this is so important?” as the answer will give you a lot of good clues for developing the relationship.

Should this discussion merely be a repeat of the formal performance requirements of your role, then you will need to gather some of the “unwritten” ways your boss will assess both you and your performance.  Sometimes, the boss may not even be consciously aware of these expectations, but none the less they will be there.  One good way of doing this is to ask him or her to explain their ideal employee.  You can do this with a question such as: “You’ve probably had many good people working for you previously.  What is it about these people that you particularly liked?”  If you want some more information, you can always ask your manager to describe some of the characteristics and behaviours of their most disappointing employees.

Step Two:  Assess yourself

What is it about you that impedes or facilitates working with your boss?  Draw up a (short) list of “Things that I like about working with my boss” and “Things that I don’t like about working with my boss”.  Work out some ways to overcome, or at least manage, the things that you don’t like, for these are probably the areas that your boss is least happy with.  If necessary, ask some of your peers for assistance, particularly those who seem to have a good relationship with him or her. 

You should also review the information about your manager’s ideal employee and most disappointing employee that you obtained in step one.  What will you need to do to ensure that you take account of your manager’s likes and dislikes in his or her employees? 

Applying this step doesn’t mean that you have to change your style or personality.  However, it does mean that you need to be careful that your behaviour does not clash with your manager’s expectations.

Step Three:  Understand your boss

You don’t have to become lifelong friends with your boss, but you do have to understand him or her.  For example, try to develop strategies for the following:

  • How does he/she like to receive information?  When?  What form?  Does he/she like lots of detail or big picture?  Give it that way.
  • What is his/her number one strength?  Capitalise on it.
  • What is his/her number one weakness?  How can you help?
  • What’s the boss’ central goal?  How can you assist?
  • What are his/her main pressures?  How can you help minimize these?
  • How does your boss handle conflict?  How can you help (or avoid)?

Step Four:  Recognise that there are differences in style and adapt

For example, you may have different personality styles; you may be an introvert, your boss may be an extrovert, or vice versa.  This doesn’t mean that you suddenly have to change, but please do think about his or her style and learn to manage it.  For instance,  extroverts like to work out problems by talking them through.  So, if your boss is more extroverted, then it can be quite useful to talk through issues with him or her to reach a decision.  Introverts on the other hand, like plenty of time to think about a problem and then discuss their ideas and possible solutions.  If your boss is more introverted, then you will need to go to him or her with very well thought out proposals and recommendations – trying to reach a conclusion by talking the issues through with this style of manager will definitely not work.  Make sure that you have a good understanding of both yours and your boss’ style so that you can learn to manage the differences.

Implementing the above four steps with your boss will go a long way to building a solid foundation for the relationship.

In addition to these four steps, there are also four rules that I believe you should always follow in your ongoing relationship with him or her if you want it to be truly productive.

Rule One:  There should be no surprises for your boss!

Keep your boss informed of what’s happening in your area on a regular basis, particularly potential problems.  If you are in doubt as to what to tell or not tell your boss, always ask yourself: “Would this information have an impact on my boss’ position?”  It’s generally better to communicate too much than too little.

Rule Two:  Never hide a problem

No matter how much you try, hidden problems will always come back to bite you (they are like lies – they will always find you out).  Far better to be proactive.  Keep in mind that you will help your situation if you  present the information in a style that suits your boss; try to get the words “right” by communicating in a style that suits your boss’ communication style.

Rule Three:  Always do your homework

Before approaching your boss with a question or to ask for help, always do as much research as possible so that you have the complete facts.  If he or she constantly has to send you away for more information, then you have not prepared properly.  Try to bring your solutions or suggested solutions with you when presenting a problem on which you want some help.  This will demonstrate to your boss that you are taking initiative although you may not have all the answers.

Rule Four:  Do not underrate or undercut your boss

Present a united front – support your boss with others.  Disagree with him/her in private, never in public.

Finally, remember the person who has most control over your immediate future (other than yourself) is your boss.  Treat him or her with that respect.

Author bio: 
Bob Selden is passionate about developing effective leadership and management within organisations.  He also works with individual managers in their personal development as a part time faculty member on the leadership and management development programs at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and the Australian Graduate School of Management, Sydney Australia.  He’d really like to hear your thoughts on leadership and management development via the National Learning Institute. You can contact Bob at http://www.nationallearning.com.au/               

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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