I’ve seen many potential boss-subordinate relationships crumble because the subordinate never took the time to understand the boss’s style, and to then adapt to it. You might not like adjusting your style to accommodate your boss’s, but it’s low hanging fruit for achieving an effective partnership. So acknowledge and act on these six key aspects of style, which I also share in my new (bestselling!) book, Leading from the Middle: A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, and Across the Organization.
1. Information Receipt and Retention
Since much of the boss-subordinate relationship is about exchanging information, it’s important to understand your boss’s preferences on this front and to accommodate. For example, do they prefer to communicate in email or in person? Do they process information better by listening or reading? Do they get impatient if you veer off topic or do they enjoy the sidebars? How much information on what kind of things do they want or not want?
By the way, they tend to want more information than you think. And it’s important to note that research shows the number one piece of information bosses want is a progress report, that is, an update on progress on a project of interest.
Knowing how your boss likes to make decisions makes you more effective in influencing what they ultimately decide. Do they like to “stew and chew” or decide quickly? How much information, of what kind, do they need before they’ll decide? Do they prefer consensus or just want to gather the information from different parties and make the final call? Do they prefer a firm recommendation from you or just the set of options? Do they prefer to be involved in all decisions or want to delegate as many of them as possible? Are you clear on your decision-making space?
The more of this you know and act on accordingly, the more influential you’ll be, by the way.
Does your boss like conflict or tend to avoid it? Do they go guns blazing into an argument or prefer a subtler approach to influencing? Do they prefer disagreement behind closed doors versus out in the open?
If you know your boss likes conflict, you can help them be ready for “battle” by arming them with convincing data and arguments. That’s influence. If you know your boss doesn’t like conflict, you can avoid putting them in uncomfortable situations and help them advance their agenda in non-confrontational ways. That’s also influence.
Does your boss like a lot of structure or to adhere to strict processes? Are they more formal in style or informal?
Differences in styles here can create unintended impressions on performance. For example, if you continually show up for your one-on-one with your boss without a thoughtful, written agenda, they may start to see you as undisciplined, a poor thinker, or worse. On the other hand, if you’re too stiff and formal when your boss would rather be more free flowing, the impressions aren’t much better. This is the easiest style difference to spot, even if it requires more effort to adjust to.
5. Task versus People Orientation
This one is easy to miss. The first aspect of it relates to your boss’s perceived demands on their time and whether or not they feel they have time for you. They may prefer to spend more of their time driving tasks, projects, and timelines rather than meeting with you (even though the latter is much of how the former gets done). The second aspect of this is that when your boss does make time for you, they might prefer to talk about tasks, timelines, and project details versus spending a lot of time talking about your people. This one is tricky for others-oriented leaders who want to make sure their people’s strengths are properly highlighted up the chain. Doing so, of course, is still an absolute must for you, even if your boss isn’t a “people person.”
It’s about striving for a balance (one your boss can live with). That is, knowing when too much people focus is too much or knowing when it’s time to “get down to business” with your boss. Spending exorbitant amounts of time (in your boss’s eyes) discussing people matters can lead to unfair and unhelpful impressions about you being too “soft” or distracted from running the business effectively (as misguided as that may sound). On the other hand, being all business all the time can make you seem uncaring and lacking in emotional intelligence.
This is about knowing the behavioral traits that make your boss most comfortable (or uncomfortable) in the working relationship, what annoys them or creates bonds. Strong partnerships are more likely when both sides pay respect to the other’s personality trait preferences. And it should start with you. This isn’t about being a fake version of you, but simply paying attention to what works with your boss (or not) and making slight adjustments in your approach. To help this along, I asked my bosses to think of a past team member they dreaded or relished working with and to tell me why in each case. The “stop, start, continue” question from Step 2 will also help discern which of your behaviors are working or not working for your boss.
So pay attention to these 6 style elements – it’ll pay big dividends.
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