Of the many and varied issues that clients bring to me for career counseling, or life coaching, one of the most common is difficulties with the boss. It is of such significance that, in many cases, repairing that relationship can transform a career situation that is practically unbearable into one that is at least tolerable.
Although it is true that some bosses achieve their position through the Peter Principle (employees get promoted until they reach a level where they are no longer competent), the majority of bosses are quite capable. However, even if they’re not, it is quite likely that your boss will have a huge influence on how well you actually perform (or are evaluated as performing) your job. As David D'Alessandro states in his best selling book Career Warfare, "Your boss determines how much money you make, what kind of experience you gain, how much authority you have, what the next step of your career will be, and whether you'll be posted to Paris, France or Paris, Maine". While this statement is not entirely accurate (higher-ups can have an even greater influence), it is certainly more true than not.
The most common client problem I encounter in this arena is the passivity demonstrated by employees when they feel they have a poor relationship with their boss. It is all too easy to attribute difficulties to “personality conflicts” or “she’s out to get me” or “he’s sexist / racist / homophobic”. While some bosses do have an irrational dislike of their employee(s), most are more malleable than they may seem. After all, if the relationship is upsetting you it’s probably causing your boss some level of distress, too. Here are five principles to follow that will help repair a problematic relationship, or help insure that a new one gets off to the right start.
PRINCIPLE #1 – The Boss Is Always Right (usually)
If you’re in the service business. The Golden Rule is that “the customer is always right”. You should have a similar attitude toward your boss. Of course neither the customer nor the boss is in fact always right, and if an excessive request is made by either it should not be blindly executed. What’s more, any kind of abusive behavior should not be tolerated in either situation. However, your goal in just about any dealing with your boss is to make that person feel respected and important, just like the customer.
PRINCIPLE # 2 – You Need to Earn and Keep the Boss’ Trust
Your boss has earned her / his stripes. You are looking to do the same. That means to the best of your ability you should strive to flawlessly implement projects that you are assigned. No factual errors, typos, or (worst of all) missed deadlines. This is a particularly critical rule at the beginning of a relationship, since how smoothly and promptly you complete assignments at the beginning will set your boss’ expectations moving forward. If your boss feels your word is unreliable, you’re in trouble. Now, things often do not go as smoothly as anticipated, but if it looks like you may be late in completing a project don’t wait until the last minute to inform your boss; frequent status reports ensure that communication is flowing and that there won’t be any huge surprises. Relatedly, accept responsibility for mistakes or delays in your assignments. Over the two decades in advertising during which I supervised employees, one of my pet peeves was people trying to pass the buck. It connoted shiftiness and a lack of maturity and character.
PRINCIPLE # 3 – Anticipate your Boss’ Needs
Time is at least as valuable, if not more so, to your boss than it is to you, because the boss has greater responsibility. However, even if this is not the case, and you see your boss taking long lunches, coming in early, and leaving late, you should still try to anticipate his / her needs. People in any situation, including the workplace, really appreciate others making efforts on their behalf, efforts that make their lives easier. So, rather than waiting for an order or asking “what should I do?” all the time, propose a course (or courses) of action: “I’ve drafted a summary of our third quarter results that I thought might be helpful to take with you to the meeting with the owner”;“I can get this recommendation to you by the end of tomorrow, will that be OK?“; Would you like me to schedule the meeting for the conference room, or did you have another setting in mind?”
PRINCIPLE # 4 – Own Your Part of the Problem
Just as in romantic or fraternal relationships, when things go south both parties share responsibility. Look to yourself first and what you may have contributed to the situation before deciding that it’s all the boss’ fault for being unreasonable, temperamental, or volatile.
PRINCIPLE # 5 – Don’t Let a Toxic Relationship Fester
Any relationship can get off track. If it feels like yours is heading in that direction, consider requesting a meeting at which you’d acknowledge past mistakes, express regret, and make suggestions for future improvement. These face-to-face meetings can be anxiety producing and nerve wracking, but they’re preferable to trying to sweep a crumbling relationship under the rug.