Can you manage your boss?

By Judith O’Neill *

OVER 25 years ago I read an article by John Gabarro and John Kotter which helped me enormously in building relationships with my bosses.

At the time it introduced a very powerful new concept between the manager-boss relationships – that of the mutual dependence of the participants. I rediscovered the article in 2005 and have resurrected it again recently to discuss with a friend and client.

The Idea in Practice

  • Recognising that mutual dependence is all-important allows you to develop a productive relationship with your boss by focusing on:
  • Compatible work styles. Bosses process information differently. “Listeners” prefer to be briefed in person so they can ask questions. “Readers” want to process written information first, and then meet to discuss.
  • Decision-making styles also vary. Some bosses are highly involved so you touch base with them frequently. Others prefer to delegate so you inform them about important decisions you have already made.
  • Mutual expectations. Don’t assume you know what the boss expects. Find out. With some bosses, write detailed outlines of your work for their approval. With others, carefully planned discussions are the key.
  • Communicate your expectations. Find out if they are realistic. Persuade the boss to accept the most important ones.
  • Information flow. Managers typically underestimate what their bosses need to know – and what they do know. Keep the boss informed through processes that fit her or his style. Be upfront about both good and bad news.
  • Dependability and honesty.Trustworthy managers/team players/ people only make promises they can keep and don’t hide the truth or down-play difficult issues.
  • Good use of time and resources.Don’t waste your boss’s time with trivial issues. Selectively draw on his or her time and resources to meet the most important goals – yours, hers/his and the company’s.

Understanding the Boss

You need to gain an understanding of the boss and his or her context, as well as your own situation. All managers do this to some degree, but many are not thorough enough. The fact is bosses need co-operation, reliability, and honesty from their direct reports. Managers, for their part, rely on bosses for making connections with the rest of the company, for setting priorities, and for obtaining critical resources.

If the relationship between you and your boss is rocky, then it is you who must begin to manage it. When you take the time to cultivate a productive working relationship – by understanding your boss’s strengths and weaknesses, priorities, and work style – everyone wins.

Many managers, assume that the boss will magically know what information or help their subordinates need and provide it to them. Certainly, some bosses do an excellent job of caring for the direct reports but for a manager to expect that from all bosses is very unrealistic.

A more reasonable expectation for managers to have is that some help will be forthcoming. After all, bosses are only human. Most really effective managers accept this fact and assume primary responsibility for their own careers and development. They make a point of seeking the information and help they need to do a job instead of waiting for their bosses to provide it.

Managing a situation of mutual dependence requires the following:

  • You have a good understanding of the other person and yourself, especially regarding strengths, weaknesses, work styles and needs; and
  • You use this information to develop and manage a healthy working relationship – one that is compatible with both people’s work styles and abilities.

Understanding Yourself

Your boss is only one-half of the relationship. You are the other half, as well as the part over which you have more direct control. Developing an effective working relationship requires that you know your own needs, strengths and weaknesses and personal style.

You must become aware of what it is about you that prevents or helps working with your boss and take the necessary steps to make the relationship more effective.Understanding that your boss depends on you is vital: he or she needs your co-operation, reliability and honesty.

Your understanding that you depend on your boss can be a revelation – for communication with the rest of the company, for setting priorities and for obtaining critical resources.

If you forge ties with your boss based on mutual respect and understanding, both of you will be more effective.




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