How well do you manage your boss?
Guido (not his real name) was quite popular with the employees. The union people liked him even if at times, he had differences with them on some labor relations issues. But since Guido regularly socialized with them, drank with them after office hours, complaints never ripened into formal grievances. He was doing fine until all department heads made presentations to the visiting Pacific Division president from the US.
When Guido was about to conclude his presentation, the visiting ‘fireman’ shot an unexpected question that was not covered in their rehearsals: “How does the average pay of the staff compare with the rest of your industry here in the Philippines?” After a little hesitation, Guido replied: “We are a bit below, sir, compared with the rest of the industry.” His immediate boss, an expat, his face livid with rage and embarrassment, challenged Guido’s assertion. When Guido tried to defend his position by showing his own survey, his boss questioned the choice of benchmark positions and impugned the authenticity and integrity of the survey.
The incident shows one cardinal rule in managing your superior: never embarrass him before his boss and don’t withhold any negative information before somebody else knows about it. The episode also reveals one fundamental principle in managing people. You manage well not only the people beneath you but also one person above you, your boss.
First, understand your boss’ strengths and weaknesses, priorities and work style. You have to understand also what drives you crazy with your boss. Consider these suggestions for improving the relationship.
- Know the problem
Does he micro-manage you? I had one boss before and we called him dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s.” We laughed at his antics. We used to say: “Here’s an engineer from Timbukto, and he is correcting us in our English.” We went along with his correction until he ran out of time and told us, “Do them yourselves; just give me copies of the important ones.”
One time, he wanted to poke his fingers into the bargaining negotiations with the union. I warned him that the labor lawyer is a fiery, leftist militant and he hated Americans like hell. The guy could go ballistic and could spoil the day of my boss. He didn’t listen. There was fire and brimstone in the bargaining table. Cussing under his breath, the labor lawyer challenged my boss to a fisticuff. Like a dog with its tail between its legs, my boss backed out of the confrontation. He told me later: “You and your team, Noli, can go on with your negotiation without me. I’m not really cut out for labor relations.”
Show your boss that you are the expert in a certain field of management. You have the experience, unique expertise, the temper which he does not have. You know the pressure points and the proper levers to press. Once you get the level of confidence of your boss, he would let you do your own thing with minimum of supervision.
- Is there communication problem with your boss?
Ask for a regular meeting with your boss. Tell him your goals and objectives. If you are not part of the executive or top management team, ask the corporate goals that you can support. Remember, that he also needs your support to achieve those goals. Don’t wait to be invited to the executive dining table. Invite yourself to it by taking an aggressive stance and prove that you are a valuable asset and important part of the team. Membership in the executive team is not given to you on a silver platter, it is earned.
Manage your time with your boss. Don’t stay longer in his office than is necessary unless he wants to engage in idle talk with you. Remember that he has myriads of problems to tackle with. Your department probably represents only about 10% or less of the time that needs his attention. Don’t make it as if it is 100%.
- Study the management style of your boss
Remember the adage, “Different folks, different strokes.” Be sensitive to know how he likes your work done and how he prefers to get information. Does he want oral report, detailed written report or just executive summary? Is he a laid-back guy or the type who wants to be in the loop in every inch of the way? What are his work habits?
Don’t second guess. Ask him what he expects from you. He would probably be pleasantly surprised with your interest and answer you gladly. Create a list of “influencers” of your boss, from your peers, from the peers of your boss, from your boss’ boss. You will get additional inputs from them about your boss’ style.
- Cultivate compatible interest with your boss
We, the direct reports, gathered in one’s office after lunch break. Our boss barged in and asked: “Anybody, interested to join me in our square dance this Saturday?” One of us answered jokingly, “No, unless I am square.” We all broke into laughter. Our boss didn’t think it was funny. Blushing red, he went out. That wise guy never stayed long in our company as he could not stand the heat of our boss. The rest of us joined the square dance even if we thought we were not “square.”
Do you play golf, basketball, tennis, or poker? It may be time to start. If you want a more resilient and closer relationship with your boss, cultivate an interest in something that also interests the boss. You need to see your boss as a person, not just a business contact.
- Don’t come just with problems, come with solutions
You are hired to solve a problem and not be part of the problem. A boss would be pleased if you inform him of a major problem and offer him alternative solutions. It would be even better if he asks you what option to take and accepts your recommendation.
Your job is to gather information, process and analyze them and offer approaches to make use of the analysis. To use a metaphor: your job is to gather grapes (information) and turn them into wine (solutions) for your boss to decide.
- Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
Trust and credibility are important to win the heart of your boss. Before presenting a project for his approval, study it carefully. Weigh the pros and cons, anticipate questions that will be asked and be ready for the answers. You might be spending only 30 minutes with him but spend 10 hours or more in studying the project.
Trust is not gained overnight. It depends on your track record of delivering on time what you promised. You must gain the reputation of living up to your promise.
Never criticize your boss to others
Walls have ears. Bad news has wings. Bosses are human beings like you. They get hurt when you badmouth them to others. You can never trust the peers close to you. Your peers may reveal your complaints to your boss wittingly or unwittingly. Seeking an audience with your boss to talk on your problems with him is the better discreet approach. Talking about it in a dispassionate manner without any taint of hostility can improve your relationship with him.
You may compliment him on some of his strengths and accomplishments. Praising him on the proper occasion does not mean sucking up to him. Bosses hear a lot of problems and complaints. Seldom do they hear compliments which are music to their ears.
There is a mutual dependence on the boss-subordinate relationship. Boss needs cooperation, support, reliability and trust from their direct reports. Subordinates need support of their bosses to make connections with the rest of the company, for setting priorities, and getting critical resources. Bosses are also the key for career advancement. If the relationship is not smooth, it is you who should start to manage it.
Managing your boss is not corporate cozying up. It is neither downright apple polishing. It is not being sipsip. It is forging ties based on mutual respect and understanding. It is making your work more enjoyable, productive, career-enhancing and enriching.
(The author is Chairman of Change Management International, a management consultancy firm; currently, Vice-President of ECOP; professional lecturer on Human Resource Management and Labor Relations and member of the Tripartite Industrial Peace Council (TIPC), and member of the Tripartite Executive Committee (TEC) and Commissioner of Tripartite Voluntary Arbitration Advisory Council (TVAAC). He is co-author of the book, “Personnel Management in the 21st Century and author of the book, “Human Resource Management – From the Practitioner’s Point of View.” His email address is: [email protected])
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