Sometimes building a relationship with your boss is easy–you’re on the same wavelength, chemistry is there, you compliment each other well. Research shows that in at least 60 percent of boss-subordinate pairings though, no such luck.
It’s too important of a connection to not connect, so here’s 6 words of help. Remember that an effective boss-subordinate relationship is, at its core, interdependence between two imperfect human beings.
Full stop. As I discuss in my new (bestselling!) book, Leading from the Middle: A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, and Across the Organization, many struggle with their boss because they gloss over this truth. You need your boss. He/she needs you. And you’re both imperfect human beings.
Still, I’ve seen so many frustrated employees reach the conclusion that they don’t need their boss, that the boss is just an impediment to success. Or they hammer their boss for their mistakes and flaws, labeling them in an unrecoverable way—the opposite of embracing interdependence and fallibility.
I’m not saying it’s easy. The nature of the boss-subordinate relationship is filled with tension inherent in a hierarchy. For example, the boss plays fundamentally conflicting roles, as supporter and assessor. How much do you reveal of what you need, when, at the same time, your boss is evaluating and judging your abilities?
Of course, it starts with establishing a trusting relationship, worthy of a whole other article. Here, I want to focus on helping you avoid the five most common mistakes employees make in trying to improve the relationship with their boss.
1. Managing up is not sucking up
Your boss will see through apple-polishing behavior. Nor is it about being a “yes” person or mini-me replica of the boss. Don’t lose yourself in trying to find a bond. Which brings us to the next common misstep.
2. Deference is not an obligation, nor is resistance always right
Realize that always deferring to the boss and following the path of least resistance leads nowhere good. But don’t be at the other extreme either, feeling it’s your duty to be antagonistic to the boss at every turn. It’s about striving for balance, knowing when to push back and when situational followership is called for. Getting the balance right is a basic, but critical, early step towards partnership.
Regarding being too deferential, this is where most of us struggle. The key here is to be honest with yourself about your tendency to be dependent on authority figures. If you tend to always fall right into line or look too much to the boss for what to do, ask yourself if that tendency is really serving you, your boss, and your organization in the best way possible. The answer, of course, is no.
Regarding pushing back on your boss, remember that while yes, you should speak truth to power, every exchange doesn’t have to be a power play. If your default is to push back, think of how draining it would be if a subordinate continually did that to you. Pick your places.
3. Managing up shouldn’t come at the expense of managing down
I’ve seen it too many times. Managers that are absolute champs at managing up. They have the boss eating out of their hand. But they’re not feeding their employees. In fact, they largely ignore or vastly underserve their employees, figuring the time and energy is best spent managing up, to produce the most direct benefit for them personally. Think of managing up as an extension of managing down; it’s for the benefit of your organization too (not just for personal gain).
4. Your boss doesn’t have extrasensory perception
I’ve seen many a boss-subordinate relationship go sour because the employee assumed the boss should be able to discern far more than you could expect from any human being. Even the most emotionally intelligent bosses aren’t mind readers. If you don’t share what you need, what’s troubling you, what’s frustrating you, odds are it won’t be divined by your boss. Assume that in the absence of communicating all of this to your boss, you’ll get mediocre help at best. Don’t assume what they know or should be doing and certainly don’t make assumptions about their intent. Ask or tell and ye shall receive, or at least they’ll now perceive, and can go from there.
5. Your boss doesn’t define you
When you start to feel defined by how you think your boss perceives you, trouble follows. You’ll compromise far too many things in your efforts to win your boss’s approval. You might do things you wouldn’t normally do that don’t make you feel good or that aren’t necessarily helping the relationship. Seeking such acceptance is an empty pursuit at best, soul-crushing at worst.
Chase authenticity, not approval.
Put a cap on how much of your self-worth you derive from your manager’s perceptions of you. Doing so takes some of the natural tension out of the relationship because you’re only letting it mean so much to you. Should you try to exhibit limitless patience with your boss? Absolutely. Should you feel limited by what your boss thinks of you? Absolutely not.
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